In the long-lived sitcom “Scrubs,” Zach Braff proved his comic timing and a willingness to be silly. And like so many actors who succeed with comedy, it seems Braff cannot stop wanting to be serious.
He wrote and directed the 2004 indie hit “Garden State,” which captured a moment for millennial viewers. In that one, the funny stuff was funny, and the serious stuff played like someone wanting to be taken seriously.
Braff’s return to directing is “Wish I Was Here,” and again, comedy is not enough. In this one he stars as Aidan Bloom, an L.A. actor (that is, he auditions for parts he doesn’t get) whose life is frittering away.
He’s embarrassed that his wife Sarah (a nicely understated Kate Hudson) has to work a boring job to keep the family going, and he can’t keep his two kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) in religious school because his orthodox father (Mandy Patinkin) is faced with a cancer challenge and can’t pay their tuition anymore.
Aidan also has a brother (Josh Gad), a nerd-genius type who lives in a trailer and refuses to talk to the father. He’s given a promising but underdeveloped subplot about a neighbor (Ashley Greene) with a hobby of dressing up as furry characters at comic-book conventions.
Around this mid-life stall, the film mostly provides scenes that you’d expect, with lessons learned and small victories gained. Braff’s personality as a filmmaker is unwaveringly earnest, and he presents the most conventional scenes — trying to get his kids to appreciate an epiphany during a camping trip to the desert — as though he really, really means them.
Luckily for the movie, there are funny moments, and Braff actually does have an eye for the stray, telling detail. He’s good at inserting those at key moments, like the waiting-room rack-holder labeled “This Pamphlet Could Save Your Life,” which contains no pamphlets.
The jokes tend to be staged with the rhythm of a sitcom, which is an issue when the movie goes on for a while. Stuff that works in the pell-mell world of something like “Scrubs” just seems weird when placed in a more realistic context like this.
It’s similar enough to “Garden State” that the audience that turned that into a surprise hit might come out again. Some of them actually contributed to its making; “Wish I Was Here” was partly financed through crowd-sourcing fundraising on social media.
However, the “Garden State” audience is now raising kids and dealing with weightier life issues, just like Braff’s characters. That means they don’t go to movies as much anymore. Let’s see if they’re still game for his blend of whimsy and sincerity.
“Wish I Was Here” (two stars)
Director-star Zach Braff follows up his 2004 indie hit “Garden State” with this mid-life crisis movie, which also blends whimsy with sincerity. Kids, jobs and a parent’s illness are the issues on the table, played at a sitcom rhythm that isn’t quite right for a feature length film. Kate Hudson co-stars.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Opening: Friday at Guild 45th and Pacific Place