While it's their first collaboration, one would be completely excused if they believed writer/director David Wain ('Wainy Days," "Stella," "Role Models") and Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," etc.) had been working together for years. Clearly kin-like comedic souls or brothers from another mother, Wain and Apatow have been drinking from the same sweet and sour pool for some time (Wain's previous effort "Role Models" especially feels like an Apatow production).
And while Wain's comedy has skewed a little bit more delicious immature and stupid (in a good way) than Apatow's signature blend of heart and potty humor, "Wanderlust" strikes the perfect mix and yet still feels like an entirely Wain-ian effort (as if Apatow only gave a few nurturing notes, but then signed off and said, "This is good to go").
And while the comedic, light and sometimes downright hilarious "Wanderlust" doesn't have the soulfulness of Apatow's more memorable modern comedies, it does have plenty of wickedly silly jokes and entertaining moments to make for a laughably good time at the movies. Ultimately an inessential movie? In the scope of things, sure. But for the most part, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable flick, even if it isn’t one for the ages. Its ambitions and goals are modest and in that sense, most of them are achieved.
George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) are two New Yorkers approaching their 40s, still part of the grinding metropolitan rat race, and they feel it's about time they owned some property. After much debate, they finally concede and settle on a tiny shoe box studio apartment in the West Village — the neighborhood they most desire, despite not actually being able to really afford it. Things quickly take a turn for the worse when the financial company that George works for (and despises) is shuttered on charges of fraud. And it doesn't get much better for Linda whose recent flight of vocational fancy — a documentary on penguins in the arctic with testicular cancer — is summarily dismissed by HBO as being too dark and depressing.
Broke, the sorely distraught and defeated couple sell their flat for a loss, put their tails between their legs and pick up and move to Atlanta to get back on their feet by staying with George's crass and boorish older brother Rick (Ken Marino, in typical hysterically funny jackass mode). Exhausted on the drive down south, the couple takes refuge at Elysium – a hippie commune which also rents rooms for guests. They befriend the locals (Alan Alda, as the acid-fried founder, the free-spirited Malin Akerman, Lauren Ambrose, Joe Lo Truglio, a rather distrustful and hilariously unhinged Kathryn Hahn and Kerri Kenney to name a few), indulge in marijuana, music festivities and skinny dipping, and awake refreshed and ready to continue on in their voyage.
But things in Atlanta with the overbearing Rick and his booze-sozzled wife Marissa (Michaela Watkins) aren’t exactly inviting. After unsuccessfully attempting to work for his older brother's lucrative port-a-potty company, George and Linda quickly abandon ship and head back to the peace, tranquility and camaraderie of Elysium, which leads the city dwelling couple to accept the ways of the commune, including partaking in local chores and tasks, but also psychedelics, free love and a painful lack of privacy.
And with this set-up in play, Wain juxtaposes the ridiculous (acid trips, uncomfortable nudism, general nonsensical hippie beliefs which tend to be more dogmatic than they're presented as) with the notions of adjusting to this new world and the themes and ideas of abandoning the heavy weighted concerns of society, success, money and status. It’s all done with Wain’s easy-breezy relaxed mien. The themes are there and yet, it’s never too serious or overwhelming. This is meant to be a lite, fun comedy with some occasionally puerile gags and in that sense it doesn’t disappoint or stray too far from its chill and laid-back manner.
Of course, this newfound world and its customs are all amusingly liberating at first for the two protagonists, but it also has its natural adaptation complications — even competitiveness such as when defacto uber-charismatic spiritual leader Seth (Justin Theroux) takes a shine to Linda, but also tries to paint George as an uncomfortable square who doesn't really belong in the lovey dovey tribe (and this is perhaps a nice reversal as the audience expects Aniston’s character is the one who’s going to revolt against the hippie ideals). Deeper love and true complications are never as emotionally heavy or resonant as they have been in recent Apatow films and mostly feel like familiar second-act complications, but this also isn't "Masterpiece Theater" and every obstacle works well enough.
Not surprisingly, one of the funniest tangents in the film is one that involves the old "Stella" gang; Wain, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black as jackass Atlanta newscasters and suffice it to say their infectious comedic alchemy is gutbusting and almost merits a spin-off film. OK, not quite, but can we please at least see a comedy where these three figure in as prominent sidekick buddies a la a Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau film?
Another beaming highlight is Marino and Watkins who essentially steal every second on screen as the obnoxious husband and drunken housewife duo. In fact, Rudd and Aniston are essentially the film's weak links, never once doing much out of the ordinary and staying firmly within their familiar film personas, but with such a colorful supporting cast and Rudd's on point improvisation, it hardly matters. In that sense, it’s arguable that every tangent in the film is actually funnier than the two main protagonists, but they’re also the straight-man characters who help indoctrinate the audience into this strange and tree-hugging world.
In fact, what's semi-remarkable is how much "Wanderlust" sticks to the almost-predictable Apatowian conventions you’re familiar with, but it still largely works regardless (and provides lots of laughs to boot). It's as if the filmmakers are saying if it's not broke, don't fix it, and after 90 minutes of this comical little lark, you can hardly blame them.
Story-wise, “Wanderlust” doesn’t break the mold and most plot and tangent threads are fairly unsurprising or banal. When the corporate bad guys come around to rain on the commune’s parade, you aren’t exactly shocked. In fact, the entire endeavor is pretty shaggily written going from one moment to the next without much forethought, but in the end they pull it off and that’s all that really matters. Those looking for deeper connective tissues in the film probably just need to pass on this one and or log-in time at your local arthouse theater instead.
A mix of good-natured and congenial spirit, plus some good dick gags and LSD-soaked absurdist moments, “Wanderlust” definitely doesn’t rewrite the rules of comedy or the vulgar/sweet idiom that Judd Apatow has cultivated over the years, but it’s also a bit more tart, and in that way a bit more David Wain. Crowd-pleasing without being mundane, “Wanderlust” is a disposable riff on challenging the conventional notions of how we should live our lives, and the (sometimes) artificial escapes a lack of restrictions can release into them. And it's an enjoyable little riff at that. [B]