Wanderlust has pretty much stymied me from a critical standpoint. On one hand, it’s a comedy, and it made me laugh. It made me flipping bust a gut. In theory, I could leave it at that. Comedy = Funny = Positive Review. But the latest film from Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain also brims at intelligence, tackling a number of relevant social and personal themes with occasional insight, only to have those ambitions undermined by a formulaic storyline. The film is better for having ambitions, but ironically less perfect for failing to live up to those ideals.
Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston (who hasn’t been this funny in a long time) play George and Linda, a married couple who just bought their first home the day before the economy collapses. Suddenly penniless and unemployed, they fall prey to squabbling and resentful bickering before they chance upon a hippie commune led by Justin Theroux and Alan Alda. A night of blissful escapism with these freethinkers (who have great weed) leads George and Linda to make a life-altering decision to drink the Kool-Aid. Peyote jokes, vegan judgments and copious male nudity ensue.
As a concept, city folk living amongst the flower children is rife with humor potential, and Wain and his co-writer Ken Marino, who also plays George’s awful brother Rick, eke every last laugh out of the concept, cheap or otherwise. Beyond the comedy, there’s an obvious cultural commentary at play in Wanderlust that deals with contemporary economic strife, which in Wain and Marino’s world opens up new avenues of personal growth. To quote Homer Simpson, “Crisi-tunity.” It’s a simple but valuable moral, backed up clumsily by an old-fashioned Us vs. Them subplot that finds the hippies at odds with a big, evil corporation who wants their land to build a new casino. There’s nothing wrong with that storyline – unless you ask Fox News – but it does little to elevate the material beyond typical broad comedy dynamics.
What does elevate the material is the film’s depiction of George and Linda’s relationship difficulties, which are handled in a shockingly evenhanded fashion. Their car trip from New York to Georgia, immediately following the implosion of their old lifestyle, jump cuts to every phase of their trip, cleverly juxtaposing their depression, fighting, reconciliations and compartmentalizations. It’s a full road trip movie in about two minutes, emphasizing that all of these emotions take place simultaneously in a complex romantic relationship. And as the film progresses, and Linda becomes more enamored with their new free-spirited lifestyle than George does, Wanderlust deftly dramatizes an issue familiar to anyone in a long term relationship, in which one partner’s personal evolution sometimes outpaces the other’s, leading to sympathetic difficulties and an important reassessment of the protagonits’ priorities.
Ironically for a film that celebrates liberal spirituality, the real sticking point for George and Linda is the idea of having a sexually open relationship, which is ultimately denied, leading to a familiar, almost retro embrace of socially conservative ideals. It’s this tendency to fall back on tried, true and somewhat tired conventions that prevents Wanderlust from being a true comedy classic. Unlike George and Linda, Wain’s film seems afraid to leap down the rabbit hole and fully explore the counterculture mindsets that it supposedly wants to celebrate. So it falls short of perfection. That’s okay. It’s hard to be judgmental when you’re laughing this hard.