Director Zach Braff's sophomore effort confronts the complexities of Jewish identity and family ties.
The new film, Wish I Was Here, wears its Judaism proudly. Aidan Bloom’s children, Grace and Tucker, attend a yeshiva. Aidan has numerous conversations with his rabbi. And the name of his father’s dog? Kugel.
But when asked recently in an interview if he was attracted to doing the film by its Jewish themes, Mandy Patinkin — who plays Gabe Bloom, the father to director/actor Zach Braff’s Aidan — responded with an emphatic “no.” “The Jewish thing had nothing to do with it. In fact, I don’t see it as a Jewish film at all — it’s a universal story about family.”
The Blooms are a family in crisis. Aidan is an actor in Los Angeles — barely. He hasn’t had so much as a bit part in years, and has only been able to follow his bliss thanks to his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson, in her most affecting performance since 2000’s Almost Famous) working a data-entry job that is sucking the life out of her, and to his dad paying for the kids’ Modern Orthodox education. When Gabe is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to spend his life’s savings on an experimental treatment to save his life, Aidan is forced to deal with his unresolved issues with his father while trying to home-school his yeshiva-less children. He also finds himself repairing a marriage that he didn’t know was in trouble and finding a way to make his Internet-trolling brother, Noah, (played by Josh Gad) get over himself in time to say goodbye to their father.
If any of this sounds familiar, it is most likely because Braff’s sophomore effort — coming 10 years after his critically and commercially acclaimed debut film, Garden State — generated the most publicity of any pre-production film in 2013 that didn’t have “Star Wars” in its name. Braff’s wildly successful ploy to keep creative control of the film by financing it himself with a Kickstarter campaign raised more than $3 million from 46,500 backers in a month. In exchange for providing donors with everything from screening tickets to roles in the film, Braff was able to stay true to the screenplay he wrote with his older brother, Adam.
“We grew up very religious,” the 39-year-old North Jersey native who now lives in Los Angeles, recalled in an interview. “When Adam was a kid, my parents put him in a yeshiva. With me, they downshifted to Conservative and kosher.”
Braff said it wasn’t just their childhood relationship to Judaism that compelled him and his brother to write the script for Wish I Was Here, but also what being Jewish means — and doesn’t mean — to them now. “Organized religion doesn’t work for us,” he explained. “We love the jokes, the food, the culture. My parents force-fed me my religion, but what is my spirituality now? What do I believe? How do I reconcile my belief in science with faith, what am I going to teach my children — it seemed like no one was making a film” about those issues.
The film explores the difficult and at times painful road to discovery that Aidan and his family embark on, but Braff’s comic sensibility, which warmed the edges of Garden State so charmingly, is given time to shine as well, primarily through Noah’s storyline. Trying to overcome years of misanthropy, his fumbling attempts to win over a stunning neighbor culminate in some shockingly impressive scenes that revolve around a comics convention.
“The movie definitely connected with me in many ways,” said Gad, the son of an Afghani Jewish father and an Ashkenazi mother. “I went to temple all the time, and I definitely hit a point in my life where I had issues with religion in general.”
He echoed his co-stars’ interpretation of where the film tries to take its audience. “It’s immensely relatable — it transcends Judaism and goes to a much more spiritual place: how we deal with spirituality in the face of adversity and staring down significant loss.”
Gad said the film “called into account what my relationship is with Judaism, with God — it’s always evolving.” But it also helped him realize something else.
“I told my agent that I’m done playing characters who are so unbelievably unlikable that the journey to get them to likability is draining. I would like to play someone who is a nice guy first and who becomes even nicer!”
IF YOU GO
Wish I Was Here
Opening July 18 at Ritz East
125 S. Second St., Philadelphia