Would you give up everything if it meant being happy? Would you leave your job, throw away your cell phone, and leave everything behind in exchange for pure joy? This is the question at the heart of Wanderlust, a funny but inconsequential comedy from director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models).
Businessman George (Paul Rudd) and his wife Linda (Jennifer Aniston) have finally purchased the home of their dreams: a one-room pricey apartment in the West Village. When George gets fired and Linda has her “penguin testicular cancer documentary” rejected from HBO, the couple wonders if they can afford to live a New York life anymore. In a mad escape, they drive down to George’s brother’s home in Georgia, but not before crashing their car at the side of the road of a Bed and Breakfast called Elysium. It turns out Elysium is actually a hippie commune with organic food, tons of marijuana, free love and nudists. Led by charismatic and cultish leader Seth (Justin Theroux) and owned by Carvin (Alan Alda), Elysium presents George and Linda with the possibility of escaping their financial troubles and building a new, stress-free life. They agree to stay for two weeks and shenanigans obviously ensue when issues of fidelity, finance and freedom arise.
One thing Wain handles quite well is capturing the zeitgeist of America’s unstable economy. The couple’s cramped, expensive studio apartment in the West Village, though often played for laughs because of its small size, says much about the overpriced living situations that many young professionals buy even after they are deciding to start a family. If this film were made before the economic crisis, George and Linda’s desire to stay at the commune would be a lot less believable. However, the film does a fine job at displaying their fears and anxieties in a failing capitalist economy, justifying their move in a serious manner. The film also does pokes fun at both sides of the Occupy Wall Street debate; the corporate greed of New York City is shown to be just as ridiculous as the pothead commune, and no one is truly “correct.”
However, by the essential third-act, the film attempts to find seriousness in funny situations, rather than trying to find the funny in serious dilemmas. Bridesmaids, Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin are recent examples of comedies that have succeeded in taking the latter approach, presenting a serious subject (depression, growing up and sexual maturation) and finding the humor that lies beneath. It is within this strategy that these films achieve such impressiveness and where Wanderlust ultimately ends up falling a bit flat. Wandlerlust, built around this concept of a kooky cult, does not have quite enough humanity for us to truly feel attached to these characters by the end. While Wanderlust strives for poignancy, its comedic-DNA is too ridiculous to completely submit the audience emotionally to the characters’ struggles at the 60-minute mark. By the time George has his third-act revelation, we are supposed to feel moved, but rather are left feeling empty, mostly due to the previously cartoonish nature of the film.
The acting is mostly responsible for elevating the script’s few faults. Rudd shines in the leading role and makes his character’s arc from yuppie to hippie at least semi-believable. Rudd is extremely talented in improvisation, as noted by one of the best scenes in the film in which he practices a possible seduction in the mirror, complete with hilarious references to an entity known as “the vag.” Aniston does her best with some messy character material and really finds her comedic stride when she has the opportunity to act a little wild and break out of her usual composed self. Alda delights in what is basically an extended cameo and contributes many of the film’s laughs. Supporting turns by Kerri Kenny-Silver and Kathryn Hall as Elysium hippie-women are tremendously good, providing an almost surreal sense of humor that balances with Rudd’s brand of comedy quite well. On the other hand, Malin Akerman, like in many of her other movies, stands around like a sex object and does nothing. Thoreaux (who met current girlfriend Aniston while shooting) produces the fewest laughs, his character so two-dimensional it seems like a misplaced Family Guy character.
Wanderlust, which translates to “crave for travel” in German, is a mostly funny film with some great performances, but cannot reach the poignancy it nobly attempts at making a statement about internal journeys within a struggling economy. Nonetheless, it is a fun, harmless romp of a film and is best worth catching later on HBO (right after Linda’s penguin documentary airs, of course).