The Zach Braff Jewish family drama that you shouldn’t miss on Netflix

Focus Features/Netflix 

BY DAN BUFFA, ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

Have you ever stopped and wondered if there was a movie out there that spoke directly and passionately to the warts and all experience of growing up Jewish? Amid the land of comic book adaptations/extensions and overpriced remakes, I have an answer. Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here,” which is currently streaming on Netflix. 

Braff had “a very strong Conservative/Orthodox Jewish upbringing,” something that he put to very good use in the 2014 film. “Wish I Was Here” taught me more about being Jewish than any other movie had come close to in 20 or so years. 

Braff, who isn’t a religious fella by trade but still proudly identifies as Jewish, directed the film, which he co-wrote with his brother, David. It doesn’t take five minutes for a viewer to find himself laughing at the rich Jewish humor with which the brothers infuse the dialogue and story. 

Zach plays Aidan Bloom, a washed-up actor who never quite got off the ground in Hollywood, but clings to the hope of his career getting a shot of adrenaline. Loyally supported by his wife (Kate Hudson) yet torched openly by his father (Mandy Patinkin) and the older rabbi at his kid’s school for falling into the acting gene too hard, Aidan finds his life reawakened by the task of homeschooling his kids, who were just pulled out of their very rich Jewish schools. 

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A film that takes a worn-out premise and makes it feel new again thanks to great writing and acting, “Wish I Was Here” has an earnest heart that aims to please. You’ll notice a few threads from other films, but know that both tears and laughter will occur when you watch this film. Hudson and Patinkin shine in their supporting roles, playing the pillars that either help form or crush Aidan’s confidence at both work and home. Josh Gad is the gifted yet lost soul brother living off his late mother’s money, facing the same scold from his dad that Aidan does. 

If you wanted to find a film with more Jewish ties to the plot and the cast, you’d be hard-pressed to find it elsewhere. I missed this film in theaters, even though I liked Braff’s previous directorial efforts, “Garden State” and “The Last Kiss.” One critic referred to “Wish I Was Here” as the grown-up version of the former film, which co-starred Natalie Portman and Peter Saarsgard. 

Braff’s films could be compared to two-hour versions of an emo-band’s hit song, and that’s not a bad thing. He deals with the neurotic and sometimes maddening nature that can strike middle-age men who are failing at their passion in a way that speaks to someone instead of preaching. Aidan is burdened with both the family life and a need to prove his father and so many others wrong with his dream profession. 

Braff shows a keen eye behind the camera, knowing how to capture the intimacy between two actors without adding too much corn syrup. There’s a cancer diagnosis that kickstarts the plot, but due to the talent assembled here and the director’s willingness to let his performers dictate the action, “Wish I Was Here” really scores big in the end. If Braff, who is well-known for his work on “Scrubs,” can keep churning these family comedy/drama episodes every few years, I’d be happy. 

Hudson is particularly effective here in a role that could have been thankless and hollow, if it weren’t for the nimble writing and the actress’ ability to pack a dramatic punch when called upon. While she hasn’t found sustained success as a lead, Hudson has shined in supporting parts like this one. A late scene with Patinkin, who is simply a master of making a line of dialogue count, punches hard due more to her than the seasoned “Homeland” vet. 

Gad finds unexpected layers in Noah’s troubled genius, while a very young Joey King is a bright spot as Braff’s daughter. The late James Avery has a blink and you’ll miss it cameo. It was the last project “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” actor finished before his untimely death. Without a game cast, the script is just a pile of words waiting to find meaning. 

The majority of critics didn’t particularly fall for it seven years ago, giving it just a 43% Rotten Tomatoes score, which brings on the bad, green tomato that no filmmaker wants to see. But some films endure well with time, and others face expectations that dim with certain critics. Sometimes, a film just doesn’t land well, perhaps needing more time to find its biggest impact.

A sense of humor never hurts the experience. Braff stuffs the film with tongue-in-cheek humor about the life of a failing actor, winking at the audience on occasion. I find it amusing when actors playing characters in a movie rebel against this thing called “acting,” like it’s the worst thing in the world. But for some families, the dreamy aspect of the profession doesn’t allow parents much patience. Thankfully, Braff’s family found his pursuits to be plenty kosher. 

“Wish I Was Here,” which is the existential crisis that Aidan finds himself in for the duration of the movie, steers clear of the schmaltzy acoustics that can drown most of these family films, instead acquiring a humanistic edge that the characters live free and die hard on for the duration. 

It also features a great soundtrack, with tearjerkers such as Bon Iver’s “Holocene” and knee-slappers like Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child.” If you ask me, a collection of great songs makes the entire operation come off better. It follows the one-liners, welds itself to the actors, and gives the film personality.   

This is a flick I want to show to everyone I know-because it’s informative and revealing about a Jewish upbringing and really connects emotionally.