Like every David Wain movie, "Wanderlust" contains the grain of a good idea that never reaches fruition. A kind of spiritual sequel to "Wet Hot American Summer," the most widely revered entry in the Wain oeuvre, "Wanderlust" follows an unemployed New York couple whose lives reach new definition when they happen upon a free-love commune in the countryside. Alternately mortified and charmed by the unhinged lifestyle, the film goofily celebrates the idea of a societal escape before drowning its idealism in a puddle of half-formed jokes.
"Wet Hot American Summer" has enjoyed cult-like adoration for the way it evokes Jewish summer camp nostalgia, but most fans express their identification with the movie's setting ahead of its comedic appeal. It's funny because it's true -- except, of course, when it's not. A lot of "Wet Hot American Summer" meanders with unremarkable young romances and bittersweet soul-searching before it climaxes with outright silliness. "Wanderlust" suffers from the same problem. Wain reaches for good ideas and occasionally grasps them; when he slips, the movie falls back on breezy gags.
For a while, however, there's something wholly endearing about his goofball anti-heroes, the hopelessly jobless George (Paul Rudd) and his filmmaker wife Linda (Jennifer Aniston), whose inability to afford their studio apartment leads them first to crash with George's egotistical brother before they retreat to the seemingly tranquil Elysium, an "intentional community" where responsibilities come secondary to sex, drugs and drum circles.
The blue-collar sincerity that Wain brings to his scenario makes "Wanderlust" a comedic relative of Vincente Minelli's "Brigadoon" and Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon," solemn expressions of utopian ideals never fully available to their civilized protagonists.
Unlike those classics, it can't deliver the reality check without simplifying the argument. At Elysium, the hedonistic bubble bursts when the burly, bearded stoner Seth (Justin Theroux) manipulates the community's lawless ways to steal Linda away from George. It culminates with a lazy finale in the form of a slapstick showdown.
Seth's sudden villainy distracts from the comparatively brilliant tension between George's civilized desires (a job, monogamy, privacy) and the commune's giddy, convoluted Marxism. Once the couple decides to play along with the free-love mandate, George's awkward attempt at sleeping with a woman other than his wife allows Rudd to let loose in a hilarious bit of uneasy physicality.
When "Wanderlust" dives headfirst into a psychedelic drug trip, or pits a dreaming George against the life-size version of a fly he killed earlier to the horror of Elysium's nature-loving residents, Wain infuses the material with a vivacious energy that the conventional narrative structure can't sustain. Just like its protagonists, "Wanderlust" fails to escape the mundanity of conventions.
Throughout his work, Wain's humor oscillates between sophomoric gags and much wiser behavioral observations--reasons why it almost makes sense to take him seriously as an artist. The endearing web series "Wainy Days" predates Louis C.K.'s F/X show "Louise" as a witty snapshot of a neurotic man struggling to the end of each day. Those five-minute episodes are short enough to make their point without drifting into distraction. One can find the same admirable uniformity with "The Ten," Wain's sketch-driven biblical satire, since it reboots the story after each caustic punchline. His humor venturing closer to surrealism than the subject matter implies, Wain tunnels inside the superfluous nature of American idealism in order to blow it up with relentless cheer. That puts him in the tradition of Mike Judge, although Wain lacks the same focus.
Maybe, like the residents of Elysium, Wain doesn't give a shit. Like a lot of comedic storytellers, he just throws everything up and hopes something sticks. That makes "Wanderlust" less movie than mission statement.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Rudd and Aniston have their fans, but this Universal release seems a little too wonky to gain much traction at the box office when it opens Friday.