The new comedy “Wanderlust” is based around a bunch of things- hippies, hallucinogens, nudity, ostentatious single-character scenery-chewing – that aren’t nearly as hilarious as the filmmakers think they are. The movie is wildly uneven but does have its share of big laughs.
Aiming to do for the Great Recession what “Lost in America” did for Reagan-era Yuppiedom, “Wanderlust” stars Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as a married New York couple who both find themselves unemployed shortly after purchasing a tiny-but-expensive apartment. On their way to Atlanta to stay with Rudd’s monstrous asshole of a brother (Ken Marino), Rudd and Aniston stumble into a rural Georgia commune populated by a collection of wacky ’60s types.
The commune characters are all played by accomplished comedic actors doing extended character bits, some are funny (Kathryn Hahn’s depressed ex-porn star, Joe Lo Truglio’s nudist/novelist) and some not so much (Lauren Ambrose’s Earth Goddess, Alan Alda’s aging hippie, Malin Akerman -as always- playing a braindead hot chick.) Justin Theroux plays the leader/David Koresh figure, and you can see where his plot is going from a mile away.
“Wanderlust” was directed by David Wain and written by Wain and Marino; those two and most of the non-Rudd/Aniston actors are veterans of MTV’s ’90s sketch series “The State.” I’ve never really gotten that style of humor or that of its various ancillary projects. I’ve watched the Wain-directed cult comedy “Wet Hot American Summer” multiple times over a decade and it still does nothing for me.
The only exception is 2008’s “Role Models,” also directed by Wain and starring Rudd, which should’ve been a middling high-concept studio comedy but instead was one of the last decade’s funniest films. That was thanks mostly to hilarious setpieces, wonderful supporting turns by Jane Lynch and kid actor Bobb’e J. Thompson and best of all Rudd’s wonderfully cynical, gutbusting performance, the best I’ve ever seen him give.
“Wanderlust” isn’t anywhere close to the level of “Role Models,” but when it works it’s usually because it takes after that film. There’s some great stuff by Rudd, especially a bit in which he rehearses in front of a mirror is beyond hilarious. The other great performance in the film is by former SNL player Michaela Watkins, who as Marino’s depressed wife seems to be visiting from a different, more psychological movie. And if you’re a fan of the new Comedy Central show “Key and Peele,” both Key and Peele are in the movie, although they never share the screen.
The other great bit is a 30-second throwaway scene that has nothing to do with the plot, in which a trio of newscasters (played by Wain and ex-Staters Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter) parody news-set banter by making it aggressively sexual. I normally recoil in horror from this sort of humor- especially when it involves Black and Showalter, who are far from my favorite comedians- but I couldn’t stop laughing at this bit.
However, the funniness tends to disappear for long stretches. There isn’t really anything funny or compelling about the premise itself, and when the film falls back on tired drug and hippie humor, it fails just about every time. There are also many, many running gags that don’t work, from Theroux talking about obsolete electronics to Alda rattling off the entire list of people who founded the commune with him, which isn’t funny the first, second, third or fourth time and leads to a punchline that isn’t remotely worth the trouble.
As with most films that involve nudity, a scene (since pulled) in which Aniston lifts her top has gotten exponentially more media attention than anything else about the film. Unfair, yes. But besides those two brilliant scenes, there’s not a whole lot else about that will be remembered.