With the state of the economy these days, dropping out of the rat race and joining a commune is becoming a more and more attractive idea. The new comedy Wanderlust taps into that desire to hide from the demands and cruelties of the world of the Great Recession, even if it means you have to make do with less bacon and considerably more B.O.
Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play George and Linda, a married couple in New York who are just buying their first apartment, a very expensive, surprisingly tiny “microloft” (or, studio apartment). But after George loses his job, and Linda realizes that she has a series of flights of fancy (documentarian, children’s book illustrator) where a career should be, the two have to leave the city move to Atlanta, where George has a job waiting for him with his awful brother (Ken Marino), whose banal, McMansion lifestyle showcases the worst that success has to offer.
On the way there, George and Linda stumble over Elysium, a commune full of hippies and an assortment of colorful characters. Infatuated with the idea of freedom, or of just not having to try so hard to make money, the two decide to stay for two weeks and see if they like it. After all, who needs bathroom doors when there is so much good weed to be had?
Director David Wain was previously responsible for the terrific 2001 cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer and the recent charmer Role Models. Here, he and co-writer Marino do a good job of showing the hypocrisies of commune life, as George keeps breaking unspoken rules (swatting flies, not drinking hallucinogenic tea) that invite a surprising amount of hostility from the supposedly laid back hippies.
For the most part, however, the script lampoons the hippie-dippie lifestyle in pretty predictable ways. There isn’t much going on here we haven’t seen before. The hippies we meet are fairly obvious types that Peter Sellers could have met 40 years ago in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.
Luckily, the film is blessed with a terrific supporting cast that makes the most of their roles. Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) is delightfully spacey as pregnant commune member Almond. Joe Lo Truglio plays Wayne, a nudist winemaker. Kathryn Hahn (Step Brothers) is very funny as Karen, a former Wall Street hotshot who still has a hard time suppressing the rage that led her to the commune. Malin Akerman (Childrens Hospital) is great as Eva, a beautiful girl who cheerily suggests to George that they should make love. And Alan Alda is hilarious as Carvin, one of the commune’s founders whose extensive love for LSD has made his mind a little foggy.
But Justin Theroux basically steals the film as Seth, the de facto leader of the commune who has a sort of warrior-poet sex god persona going on. With his primal gesticulating, constant shirtlessness and the fact that he “takes his slumber” in a tree, Seth is pretty much the Platonic ideal of a douchebag. He also has obvious designs on Linda.
In the main roles, Rudd is still terrific at the sarcastic, befuddled everyman schtick we’ve seen him do before, and Aniston is very funny as she gives herself over more and more to the commune’s granola lifestyle as eagerly as she has embraced all her past passions.
Much of the film feels improvised, and the highlight is a minutes-long monologue of dirty talk Rudd delivers into a mirror as he tries to psych himself up to take advantage of Elysium’s free love philosophy with Akerman’s character.
The movie is consistently very funny, but its plot is fairly awkwardly, desultorily tossed in. The scenes that just riff on the weird, clueless, often hypocritical characters that live on the commune are pretty hilarious. But late in the game, the screenwriters decide to include a subplot about an evil corporation that wants to build a casino on the commune’s land, and the movie basically stops dead in its tracks whenever the plot kicks in.
This also robs Rudd and Aniston’s characters of much of their agency in the way their story turns out. They don’t really have anything to do with the way the casino subplot wraps up, and it also necessitates turning Theroux’s character into much more of an outright villain, which relieves Aniston from having to make a real choice between her husband and the commune.
Wanderlust is never less than genial and funny, and its warm spirit earns it a lot of leeway, but it does flag somewhat whenever its plot kicks in. The subject matter affords the filmmakers an opportunity for some truly scathing satire of the American dream in today’s recession-riddled times that is never truly seized. The film ends up being as shaggy and undisciplined as the hippies it depicts, but for the most part Wanderlust is charming and funny.