Aidan Bloom, the 35-year-old struggling actor played by Zach Braff in Wish I Was Here, hasn't had a paying job in years (the last one: a dandruff commercial). His worn-out wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), is a data processor for a Los Angeles utility, earning not quite enough to keep them going. Their preteen daughter and elementary-age son attend yeshiva, a pricey proposition, but their grandfather foots the bill.
Except that he hasn't lately. Young Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) are in danger of being kicked out of school. Aidan's dad, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), had to divert the tuition money - for experimental treatments for the cancer that has come back hard.
That's the setup for Braff's 10-year follow-up to his writing/directing debut, Garden State. Crowdfunded to the tune of $3.1 million, and boasting a cue-the-emo-moment soundtrack (with the indie-famous Cat Power, Bon Iver, Badly Drawn Boy, and the Shins, whom Braff helped bump into the pop-music firmament in Garden State), the film finds its slacking protagonist at the proverbial crossroads. Should he continue to follow his dream, or give it up for the sake of family, marriage, sanity?
After he drops the kids at school, he'll light up the marijuana roach he found in his car and try to figure things out.
I wish Wish I Was Here made me care more about this guy's woes, but there's a patness to the weepy scenarios. To the funny ones, too. After nine years (and 90,000 surreal fantasy segments) as John "J.D." Dorian on the TV medical dram-com Scrubs, perhaps Braff can't shake off the habit of hitting the right beats at precisely the right time.
Realistically or not, Wish I Was Here succeeds in putting its characters in places where they can find spiritual succor: the So-Cal desert, with its endless sky, or the ocean, with its surf and surfers (Hudson's Sarah used to be one), and all that craggy, sun-burnished coast.
But with the kitchen-table conflicts with the kids and the empty ache of his relationship with Sarah - who used to feel like a soul mate but now seems full of reprimand and remorse - it's no wonder Aidan slips into daydreams. His reveries look like outtakes from a Star Wars knockoff: Braff, in some kind of space getup, jogging into the unknown, accompanied by a hovering orb.
"When we were kids," Aidan reflects, talking about himself and his genius ne'er-do-well brother (Josh Gad), "I used to pretend we were heroes, with swords, the only ones who could save the day."
Alas, those days are gone. But that doesn't stop the characters in Wish I Was Here from waxing nostalgic for the ice cream trucks and epiphanies of childhood. They wax, and buff, and wax again, like a team of highly emotional workers at a car wash.
Wish I Was Here **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Zach Braff. With Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 2 hours.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, sex, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz East.