Review: Opposing Tones Work Together in David Wain's 'Wanderlust'
by Jeremy Kirk
February 23, 2012
After helping make "The State" a highly regarded TV series, director/writer/actor David Wain naturally delved into feature filmmaking. The bizarre character-building that made the show such a hit came with him, and Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten were fine ideas on which he could cut his teeth. Role Models came in 2008, and, like Wanderlust, his latest film, it rode a fine line between odd character display and somewhat typical rom-com fare. It's more the latter with Wanderlust. But Wain and his co-writer Ken Marino have created a comedy that doesn't compromise either side of its tone. Plus it's extremely funny.
Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play George and Linda, a young, New York couple who are barely holding on, striving for survival in their tiny, studio apartment. After some employment misfortunes - George comes to work to find his boss being arrested by the FBI, and HBO has no interest in Linda's documentary about depressed penguins - the couple decide to uproot and move South. On the way to staying with George's brother while he looks for a job, the couple stumble across Elysium, an "intentional community" or commune in rural Georgia. The group is made up of free spirits, nudists, aged hippies, and a nice batch of overall eccentrics. After staying one night, George and Linda realize they want to try it out on a temporary basis, wondering if the situation could work out permanently.
George and Linda are written just as you would expect from a couple who start the film together. They bicker. They argue. They point the finger at the other person when things don't go right. They have the typical problem in that they believe changing their environment will change their attitudes, especially towards each other. They don't realize that any problems they have they're only carrying with them, and it takes something as drastic as Elysium and the outlandish residents there to show this to the couple.
The people in Elysium are where Wain and Marino's gifts really come into play. You almost have to wonder which side of Wanderlust came first, the commune or the straight-laced couple who come upon it. Either way, the writing team do nice work in balancing the two. There isn't too much in the way of banal tropes found in most mainstream romantic comedies, nor does Wain lose a grip on how quirky his characters are. Everyone in the commune is likable enough. At first, anyway. They all mean well. George and Linda try to fit in at first, not thinking there's anything too out of left field going on here. Yes, the nudist played by Joe Lo Truglio scares them at first, but that's only because he catches them off guard. By the time the couple, George especially, begin to grow tired of Elysium's non-traditional ways, Rudd and Aniston's reactions to it all become every bit as funny as the oddities themselves.
Wain and Marino keep the pace going. The story takes broad leaps sometimes even between single shots where a character will reveal they did something that isn't even seen or directly alluded to beforehand. It doesn't throw the rhythm of the film down too much and it keeps everything moving steadily. A few times the co-writers seem to fall too much in love with a joke, as is the case with Rudd talking dirty to himself in the mirror. You have to see it in context. But know that, while the joke is funny and Rudd completely sells it, it hits a few extra beats than is needed.
What really sells the comedy, though, is the acting. That's not just from Rudd and Aniston, who are both quite good at playing the straight-man who occasionally slips into broad theatrics. Seeing Aniston trip on hallucinogenics might be the funniest the actress has ever been. But the cast filling this commune of weirdos is where Wanderlust really merits applause. There's never a moment when Justin Theroux isn't giving his all. In any film. Here he goes all in once again to play Seth, the somewhat head of the commune, the kind of guy who walks into the film carrying a goat on his shoulders. He's every guy at a social gathering who breaks out his guitar, and he's found the group who would appreciate it. Theroux makes likable when he needs to be, not so much when that's called for.
Lauren Ambrose and Jordan Peele are also notable as a couple in Elysium who are expecting. As is Alan Alda as the last, remaining, founding member of the commune. Alda's timing borders on masterful. Combined with Wain and Merino's senile but amiable character, Alda's sense of the moment and when to act or react is made all the more comical.
The through-line in Wanderlust doesn't exactly work. Revelations about certain subplots - the group will lose the land to a casino if they can't find the original lease - are conveniently wrapped up as just as quickly as they appear. Wain and Marino don't seem too interested in that side of it, which makes you wonder why it had to take up any screen time at all. What's important about this film, what makes it work, is how non-pandering the rom-com side of it is and how non-abrasive the quirky character side of it is. Wanderlust and the comedy within it slides back and forth covering both, trying to please everyone and somehow finding a way to pull it off. Wain's days with "The State" might be long behind him, but the residuals from those days are still paying off. A little at a time.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10