The back-to-nature movement takes another hit in Wanderlust, a new comedy about an old subject: hectic urban values vs. the simple life. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as a couple of city mice temporarily detoured into a rural free-love commune straight out of Easy Rider. Although it seems like a haven at first, director David Wain (who co-wrote the script with actor Ken Marino) soon strips away the veneer of grooviness to reveal the usual Hollywood clichés: hypocritical hippies, opportunism, and self-righteousness. It's like Martha Marcy May Marlene played for laughs.
To be fair to Wain (perpetrator of the cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models), he also takes potshots at city life, reckless bankers and soulless business types. But he doesn't add much that's fresh to his yuppies vs. hippies culture-clash encounters.
Button-down New Yorkers George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) have just bought a "micro loft" on the West Side ("super-small and expensive!") when the financial institution George works for goes belly-up. Serial dabbler Linda (jewelry-maker, potter, attempted documentary filmmaker) has no income, so they're forced to move in with George's grotesque brother Rick (co-scripter Marino) in Atlanta. Rick gives George a job in his Porta-Potty dealership, while Rick's vague desperate housewife, Marissa (Michaela Watkins) sucks back margaritas all day alone in the mansion, overlooks his infidelities, and murmurs, "If you smile all the time, you can trick your brain into thinking you're happy."
The arrangement explodes almost immediately, and George and Linda take refuge in a nearby commune (or "intentional community") behind a produce stand out in the boonies. It's populated by the usual vegan, hallucinogen-ingesting stereotypes, including a full-frontal nudist (Joe Lo Truglio), a blissful mom-to be (Lauren Ambrose), sexy blonde Eva (Malin Akerman), and bearded, hippier-than-thou cult leader Seth (Justin Theroux). One happy surprise is Alan Alda as the commune's original co-founder, bombing around on a wheelchair scooter; he hasn't lived in the outside world since 1971, but he's as much an irascible old lefty as ever.
Thrilled to be accepted, George and Linda feel liberated at first—even though all possessions (including cars and spouses) are assumed to be in common, and people and livestock tend to wander into the doorless bedrooms and bathrooms unannounced. The thrill starts to wear off for George after a nasty, voyeuristic "Truth Circle," even as Linda—who was playing along for George's sake—starts to believes she's finally found her "niche."
But we're never really invested in George and Linda as a couple; they always seem adrift, wherever they are. No one expects psychological complexity in a comedy (although most comedies would be funnier if there were some), but the closer we inspect their relationship, the creepier it seems. George becomes ever more paternal and indulgent, vowing to support the little woman in whatever harebrained schemes she cooks up next. Linda's healthy skepticism at the outset evaporates completely the minute the patently phony Seth starts making goo-goo eyes at her.
(In a guitar scene that actually parodies Martha Marcy May Marlene.)
When they're pressed to commit to the free-love doctrine, Linda's initiation happens off-camera. Whatever emotional hurdles she must have conquered to cheat on her husband in order to prove herself willing to embrace his dream didn't interest Wain enough to show them. But we get more than enough of George, in a hurry to even the score, trying to man up to seduce lissome Eva. His attempt to psyche himself up by spewing scatological crudities at himself in a mirror is funny for about 30 seconds, but wears thin after a couple of minutes. (In the outtake reel during the closing credits, Rudd cracks himself up in the middle of the scene, crying, "I'm grossing myself out!" Me, too.)
Otherwise, Rudd (Wain's longtime collaborator and muse) is personable throughout, a good thing since the film proceeds from George's viewpoint. All these reliable actors make the most of their familiar roles (Alda and Aniston share a funny epiphany over a plate of illicit steak at the local diner), and the movie provides a few mindless laughs delivered by its cast of pros.
★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, and Alan Alda. Written by David Wain and Ken Marino. Directed by David Wain. A Universal release. Rated R.
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