Following the mainstream courting success of the hit film Role Models, sketch comedy visionary David Wain returns a bit closer to his former comfort zone of The State, Stella, and Wet Hot American Summer with his uproariously funny and charmingly vulgar film Wanderlust. Admittedly, Wain’s particular brand of cinematic comedy – which relies heavily on character development and not too heavily on plot – may strike some audience members as an acquired taste, but it should appeal to the director’s supporters both new and old.
Wain and co-writer Ken Marino’s unapologetically un-PC script follows the exploits of George and Linda Gergenblatts (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston), a married couple who can no longer afford their trendy “microloft” in an affluent section of the city. After losing his job as a financier and her dreams of making a ludicrous documentary don’t pan out, the two are forced to leave for Atlanta to live with George’s well to do, but hopelessly trashy brother (Marino) and his space cadet wife (Michaela Watkins).
After hours on the road at each other’s throats, George and Linda happen upon Elysium, a place they suspected was a bed and breakfast, but is actually an “intentional community” populated by an assortment of oddballs like the eternally stuck in the early 90s leader named Seth (Justin Theroux), the somewhat senile, but kindly founder (Alan Alda), a nudist wine maker (Jo Lo Trugilo), and a free love espousing sexpot (Malin Ackerman). After things go disastrously in Atlanta, George insists they stay in Elysium where everything appears nice and pure, but eventually their roles are reversed once Linda starts to warm up to the charismatic, but crazed Seth.
While lacking anything more than the most rudimentary point A to point B structure, Wanderlust has some of the most interesting characters for an offbeat comedy. The humour tells the audience all they need to know about these people without ever sending the movie into the realm of parody. It’s hard to pick a true standout among the cast members, from Wain veterans Rudd, Theroux, and Trugilo to newcomers like Aniston and Ackerman. While George and Linda are front and centre, this is most assuredly an ensemble piece in every sense of the word.
The focus on the characters also leads to some whip smart social satire surrounding the economics of happiness. George and Linda only think they are happy, both in New York and at Elysium, but neither of them knows just what they were looking for even by the end of the film. They trade a confined studio apartment for a wide open commune and realize that the latter has even more constricting rules. George’s brother paints his life to be a perfect picture of well-to-do bliss, but he can’t see that his lifestyle looks patently ridiculous. Even the denizens of Elysium are prone to the same pitfalls since most of them are there because they found people that like the sounds of their voice almost as much as they do themselves. In the film’s best and most telling moment, a frustrated George storms away from Elysium saying “I’m not the weird one, I’m the majority.” It’s a well spoken bit of confusion that lends the film’s title so much weight since Wain and Marino have proven that while he isn’t part of the commune’s majority, he really isn’t in the majority anywhere.
While not as based in free association as the comedic genius of the underrated Wet Hot American Summer, Wain’s latest strikes a tone closer to that film than the crowd pleasing leanings of Role Models. It’s strange to see a mainstream studio film with this much full frontal male and female nudity played for laughs, but even stranger to see one that also includes a birthing sequence, a dream sequence involving a coffee drinking housefly, and five straight minutes of Paul Rudd dirty talking to himself in the mirror. Again, it’s an acquired taste, but for those willing to drink it in, the Kool-Aid is pretty great.
Despite a subplot involving the potential eviction of the commune feeling somewhat tacked on, Wanderlust picks a consistent tone and sticks to it, and the hit to miss gag ratio is pretty high for fans of Wain’s previous work. The film undoubtedly stands to be a tough sell based on the material, but I hope it’s successful and that Wain continues his solid comedic track record. His particular blend of sarcasm, smarts, and unsentimental sweetness make up a voice unlike any other working in cinema or television today.