Wanderlust

"Do you remember a moment ago downstairs when you asked me if I had a room? Does this answer your question?"

David Wain’s Wanderlust offers some of the biggest laughs in recent memory, but it’s not much of a movie, if that makes sense. Its story – involving a Manhattan couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) who are forced to flee the city and move to a hippie commune in rural Georgia – plods along without much inspiration or interest while Wain and his cast lob in comic brilliance on the margins. By the end of the 98-minute film I experienced the curious sensation of being at once amused and weary.

Wain’s roots are in sketch comedy, and by those standards, Wanderlust is damn near a masterpiece.  Any number of gags are phenomenal in isolation.  We learn that Aniston’s  Linda is a dilettante documentary filmmaker who has a chance to sell her debut (an unimaginably depressing nature doc about penguins with testicular cancer – yes, I know) to HBO; this leads to a mind-boggling scene involving two HBO executives that somehow manages to repeatedly explain and then one-up its own joke. (“We do violence and heartache, but it’s sexy. Do you understand?”) When Linda and Rudd’s George – a vaguely unhappy office drone who is even less happy when he finds himself out of a job – are forced to road-trip south, their journey is portrayed in a funny and oddly touching montage of the two of them alternately panicking, fighting, and jointly singing along to the radio. When they arrive at the idyllic Elysium “intentional community,” there’s a scene where George and the commune’s founder, played by Alan Alda, get into a protracted argument over whether or not a particular cliché is meant literally.  The movie does not want for funny ideas.

Though this is Wain’s umpteenth collaboration with Rudd (a history that includes the cult-legendary Wet Hot American Summer, as well as The Ten and Role Models) , it’s notable for the fact that, for the first time, Wain adapts the material to the persona that Rudd has lately cultivated without him. George is precisely the genial, stubbornly good-humored, mildly bumbling schmuck that Rudd patented in films like I Love You, Man and How Do You Know. In Wain’s hands, though, the character takes a turn for the inexplicable. He has one scene – a monologue delivered into a mirror – that you simply must see.

The supporting characters are more hit and miss, but some of them are gold. There are a couple of interludes where George and Linda move into a McMansoin with George’s boorish brother (co-writer Ken Marino) and his wife (Michaela Watkins) – the latter is a hilarious spin on the oblivious bimbo housewife, viz., an oblivious bimbo housewife who is disconcertingly aware that she is an oblivious bimbo housewife.  Kathryn Hahn, who is rapidly turning into one of my favorite comedians, is very funny as an ex-porn star who has taken to the hippie lifestyle with a vengeance. There’s more that I don’t want to even begin to spoil.

The problem – and make no mistake, it’s a good problem to have – is that Wanderlust is isolated chunks of awesome rather than a coherent whole. The plot doesn’t really have anywhere to go, and Wain doesn’t even try to push it out of its well-worn comfort zone: Linda and George fall out when Linda, who had been skeptical, plunges head-first into their new lifestyle while George resists; George tries looking for a new job; greedy casino developers threaten to take Elysium’s land; etc. There’s not much to latch onto, I ended up tapping my foot, waiting for Wain’s next goofy non sequitur. You’ll probably find yourself recalling particular jokes from Wanderlust for weeks, but you may forget what it was actually about.

-- Eugene Novikov

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