Wanderlust is about two or three script passes away from being a consistently funny, dramatically coherent romantic comedy. Directed by David Wain of the sketch comedy group The State (he also made the cult teen-movie spoof Wet Hot American Summer), this 90-minute bundle of sketch ideas—some inspired, some tediously overfamiliar—earns a lot of points just for having its heart in the right place. Unlike a lot of raunchy romantic comedies, Wanderlust isn’t proudly regressive or sourly misogynistic; it doesn’t gratuitously humiliate its own protagonists, or make them so obnoxious that they forfeit all claim on our sympathies. The universe this movie takes place in may not feel completely believable, but at least if such a world existed, living in it wouldn’t be a bleak, unforgiving hell. (Those of us who are really evil in this life may spend the next one trapped in last year’s body-swap monstrosity The Change-Up.)
Wain lucked out in landing two of the best romantic-comedy actors out there to play the lead couple: Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. I hadn’t thought of this before, but Aniston and Rudd have something in common as performers; the almost-success of this movie made me wish they’d work together more. Both are very good-looking, but in a way that seems accessible and friendly, and both have a self-effacing manner, a deadpan sense of timing, and an ability to get raunchy without losing their constitutional sweetness. (In fact, Wanderlust’s funniest scenes, one of which I’ll describe in a minute, exploit Rudd’s gift for making the nastiest come-ons imaginable sound somehow adorable.) Aniston and Rudd play Linda and George, a young married couple who’ve just sunk way too much money into a tiny Manhattan studio marketed euphemistically as a “microloft.”
Almost immediately after buying the place, George is laid off from his unspecified but dull-looking office job. The same day, Linda’s dream of getting financing for a documentary film crashes and burns, and the two are forced to sell their cramped flat at a loss and move to Atlanta to live with George’s successful but insufferable brother Rick (Ken Marino). In a refreshing change from the familiar asshole-sidekick-we’re-mysteriously-supposed-to-like role, Rick is an asshole sidekick we’re allowed to hate, an arrogant, small-minded racist who cheats on his depressed, alcoholic wife (Michaela Watkins).
Unable to tolerate another day in this wretched house, George takes Linda back to a place where they spent one magical night on their road trip from New York: A rural farming commune called Elysium, where an aged 1960s radical (Alan Alda) owns a rambling house occupied by all manner of tree-hugging fruitcakes, including Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio), a nudist winemaker, and Seth (Justin Theroux), a charismatic tree-dwelling Lothario. Burned out from their stressful urban lives, Linda and George decide on a whim to spend two weeks living with this alternative community and then decide if they want to stay.
Needless to say, the next fortnight is a busy one, rife with blond temptresses, unscrupulous land developers, hallucinogenic-tea-fueled head trips and hard-won lessons. Much of what happens at Elysium functions primarily as a scaffolding on which to hang hit-or-miss gags, though there are a few plot twists that kick in toward the last act. The portrait of the counterculture in this movie is strangely broad and dated—the tie-dyed, sage-burning, didgeridoo-playing inhabitants of Elysium might have been satirized in identical terms in a comedy of 40 years ago. Why not have fun reimagining what a utopianist collective might look like in the 2000s, with tech-savvy Burning Man types or queer gender activists mixed in with the classic Deadheads?
Thanks to the gameness of the talented ensemble cast, Wanderlust provides at least one solid laugh per scene, with a few stretches of more extended hilarity (along with more than one riff that dies writhing before our eyes). Aniston and her off-screen boyfriend Theroux both get some funny moments, but it’s Rudd who holds the whole ramshackle thing together with his indomitably sweet spirit (a quality on ample display in last year’s underappreciated Our Idiot Brother, in which he played a well-meaning hippie dropout who would’ve felt perfectly at home on the Elysium grounds). In the best scene, George tries to summon the courage for a maritally approved tryst with commune hottie Eva (Malin Akerman) by practicing his horndog dirty talk in a bathroom mirror. His filthy locutions feel improvised on the spot, as do his increasingly absurd lascivious facial expressions (in a blooper reel over the credits, Rudd cracks up, breaks character, and tells the crew, “I’m grossing myself out!”). That two-minute stretch of Rudd in the mirror—plus a loopy final coda that uses a local news-show format to wrap up the main characters’ fates in ludicrous yet satisfying ways—make the shaggy but agreeable Wanderlust worth the detour.