If you gather most of the alumni of MTV’s The State and put them together in a movie, hilarity will follow. Throw in Paul Rudd and you get something even better. David Wain‘s Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models proved this, and his latest film, Wanderlust, proves it again. It’s ad-libbed comedy at its finest where you get a strong set-up for good jokes, and then you can hear all the alternate takes that are going to be on the DVD. Wain isn’t afraid to let scenes run a little long if one of his actors is getting into a strong rhythm, and the only time the director/co-writer falters is letting Jennifer Aniston get overshadowed by the rest of the cast, and when he lets the comedy veer from madcap to unsettling. But these are minor stumbles in a movie filled with moments that you’ll be quoting for years to come.
George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are forced to leave their beloved and cramped studio/micro-loft when George loses his job and Linda’s documentary on penguin testicular cancer doesn’t sell to HBO. The two sullenly make their way down to suburban Atlanta (or as the film somewhat-accurately portrays it, the place where anything worthwhile has never happened or will ever happen) to stay with George’s obnoxious brother Rick (Ken Marino) and his drunken wife Marissa (Michaela Watkins). On the way, George and Linda stop at a bed-and-breakfast located on a commune, and their experience is so wonderful that they decide to return and stay with the hippies after being unable to stomach life with Rick. While George encourages the move despite Linda’s reluctance, their positions reverse and Linda becomes the free-spirit while George gets increasingly annoyed at the madhouse—in particular its leader, Seth (Justin Theroux).
Hippies and their beliefs are funny. They’ve cut themselves off from society to embrace what they feel is humankind’s “natural” state where they can drink dirt-coffee, live in houses without doors, and have a friendly face-to-face chat with people who are trying to poop. Wanderlust packs in every hippie cliché and then cleverly finds a way to make old jokes about hippies feel fresh. Wain and his cast play not only into how hippies criticize society, but how they feel overbearing pride in their own “intentional community”. They’re a bunch of children who celebrate minor accomplishments, like Seth giving George and Linda a tour of the commune’s house and pointing out, “That’s a god’s-eye I made last Kwanzaa.” The actors let the characters confidently spew ridiculous dialogue, and then George stands back in awe and comments on the insanity.
Paul Rudd is usually cast as a sarcastic straight-man who learns to loosen up, and Wanderlust gives the actor little more room to breathe. George is still the straight-man, but the movie gives him moments to be the most ridiculous guy on the screen. There’s one scene where Wain just set the camera down and let Rudd’s improv go wild, and the result is brilliant and somewhat uncomfortable. As expected, The State alum are all terrific, especially Marino who comes up with imaginative ways to make Rick the worst human being alive, but even he gets upstaged by Watkins. With her delivery and comic timing, Watkins would walk away with the movie if her character had a larger role. The only cast member who doesn’t get a chance to shine is Aniston. She killed in Horrible Bosses last year, but her character in Wanderlust is in no-man’s-land. She’s not the outsider like George but she hasn’t been assimilated to the point where she can confidently say the nonsense of her new hippie family.
And there’s plenty of nonsense to be said. Wanderlust will find a healthy life on DVD as audiences keep going back to their favorite lines, and then spend hours watching alternate takes and deleted scenes. Because the plot is so bare-bones (there’s a perfunctory subplot involving plans to build a casino on the commune’s land), Wain has all the room he wants to set up situational comedy and then let the jokes flow freely. However, this approach does have its drawback because the comedy gets a little too dark at times almost to the point where you think Seth is going to tell Linda, “You are a leader and a teacher.” This isn’t the intentional dark comedy of Wet Hot American Summer as much as it feels like the hippies are becoming a little too real rather than comical exaggerations of an already comic culture.
Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. The majority of the film is filled with the excellent performances you’ve come to expect from a cast that includes Kathryn Hahn, Joe Lo Truglio, and Kerri Kenney-Silver. But Wanderlust‘s biggest strength is Wain. He trusts his cast, and he doesn’t take the easy route with the comedy. He’s unafraid to go beyond the hippie jokes and go after a throw-away line, or take a few seconds for a bizarre-yet-inspired visual gag. His plot may play it on the safe side, but the film’s humor is as free-spirited and strange as any self-righteous hippie.