Wanderlust could well be the best thing David Wain has done since 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer. Maybe that’s not the best way to start a review of a well-liked director’s latest film; I feel like I’m stacking the deck, immediately, against Wanderlust, but at the same time the movie contains and emphasizes many of the same characteristics that made Wet Hot so great and have since established it as a modern comedy classic. The humor here is big, broad, and shamelessly silly, the characters are well-drawn, endlessly funny individuals, and the satire at the film’s core is well-realized. Where the two movies differ lies in the way Wain’s latest rambles, which is only appropriate to a point given that it’s titled Wanderlust; it meanders just enough to stumble in the last act, rendering it imperfect but nonetheless hilarious and more than worth a trip to the cineplex– so long as you’re not a gymnophobe.
Wanderlust centers on George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston), a New York couple living in the fast lane who find themselves in a bad way after purchasing property in the West End: George loses his job and Linda fails to sell her documentary (March of the Penguins meets An Inconvenient Truth) to HBO. Their circumstances impel them to make the terrible choice of moving to Atlanta to live with George’s obnoxious, insensitive, loud-mouthed brother, Rick (screenwriter and frequent Wain collaborator Ken Marino); along the way, they come across Elysium, a hippie commune out in the woods. Stuck between a rock (the property fiasco in New York) and a hard place (life with Rick), George and Linda make the choice to abandon their old lives and take up residence with the flower children.
Wain’s film is at its best during the Elysium scenes, where he gets to show off his talent for creating great, memorable, hilarious characters. The greater feat lies in managing each to ensure they all get plenty of time to shine, which can’t be easy given that he has close to a dozen characters to delegate enough screen time and punchlines to all of them. Between Seth (Justin Theroux), the studly, bearded de facto “leader” of Elysium, Carvin (Alan Alda), the actual owner of Elysium and a living example of the hazards of dropping acid, Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio), a nudist with a penchant for wine-making and a passion for writing political thrillers, and Kathy (Kerri Kenney-Silver), the burnt out den-mother of the entire commune, Wain has his hands full, and that’s only around half of his cast.
Yet he lets them have their fun and effortlessly keeps them all included in the goings-on of the plot, all while making them into rounded, palatable figures. Oh, make no mistake, they mostly say and do absurd things whenever Wain puts them on screen with Aniston and Rudd. But they’re also totally unique from one another and at the end of the day, they’re believable, no matter how wacky they behave. You’ll laugh hard enough at them that you probably will remember them on the basis of chuckles alone, but there’s something genuine about each of them that sticks with you, like Wayne’s earnestness in both his endeavors in vinification and literature. Sure, Wayne walks around in his birthday suit and that’s good for a few guffaws, but you get the guy and you come to like him, too. That’s good writing.
Rudd’s on fire here. In fairness, Aniston deserves a lot of credit for her portrayal of Linda; with this and last year’s Horrible Bosses she’s really been stepping out of her good girl image to play much more interesting characters. I think we really ought to be encouraging that– she’s pretty damn entertaining when she wants to be– but this is most definitely Rudd’s movie, as most movies starring Rudd tend to be. He just works, ratcheting up his own nervous histrionics and doing some amazing facial gymnastics across the board, culminating in an extended moment in which George, psyching himself up to bed Eva (Malin Akerman), talks into a mirror and contorts his beautiful mug into the most grotesque visages imaginable. It’s killer stuff, and Rudd has plenty more to work with courtesy of Wain’s and Marino’s script.
If Wanderlust has a problem, it’s that it loses its way slightly in the middle, recovers, and then meanders into a rather unsatisfying climax. It’s nothing terrible, per se, but it just misses the mark and doesn’t live up to the rest of the film; in a movie that pushes a lot of boundaries, it’s expected and safe. As I mention in the beginning of this review, Wanderlust gads about a tad too much for its own good– because aimless roaming is last thing I’d expect from a movie called Wanderlust— but it also doesn’t have a good answer to the dilemma posed by the film’s central conceit. Do George and Linda stay at Elysium? Do they return to city life in either Atlanta or New York? If so, how do they do extract themselves from the commune?
Neither Wain nor Marino seem to have a good idea of where they want their protagonists to end up, and to complicate things further they toss an unnecessary sub-plot involving the threat of Elyisum’s destruction at the hands of contractors looking to build a casino on Carvin’s land. It’s needless busyness, and it ultimately leads someplace that’s surprisingly banal. But the less-than-perfect climax doesn’t keep the film from being very much worth watching; it’s just a bit of a bummer topping off an otherwise great comedy. For its weak spots, Wanderlust is still unbelievably funny, and packs an abundance of rich and wonderful characters.
Find more of Andrew’s writing here at G-S-T or at A Constant Visual Feast.