Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Definition of Hit-and-Miss -- Reflections on "Wanderlust" (2012)

Teenage me fantasized about this...


When I was a teenager, I always thought I was born into the wrong generation. Having been raised on the music and romance of the 1960s, I truly believed the Beach Boys’ song, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” was about me. I should have been a hippie, living in a community of loving people, enjoying life, and engaging in free love.

I was a teenager, though. I realize now all I really cared about was the concept of “free love.”

David Wain’s Wanderlust is a film that appealed to my inner teenager. I felt very giddy watching Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston enter the culture clash world of Elysium, a hippie commune in Georgia. The humor arising from this fish-out-of-water concept had me laughing hysterically for a good hour or so. But then something happened, a transition in tone, a lame plot twist, and I found myself groaning my way through the last half-hour. Wanderlust gets far more right than it does wrong, but it is the definition of a hit-and-miss movie.

Rudd and Aniston play George and Linda, two New Yorkers whose lives get turned upside-down when he loses his job, and she finds herself unable to sell a documentary about penguins with testicular cancer to HBO. They decide to relocate to Atlanta, where George’s obnoxious older brother, Rick (Ken Marino), runs a port-a-potty business. On the way to Rick’s, George and Linda decide to stop overnight to stay at a bed and breakfast, and discover it is a hippie commune. They meet a colorful cast of characters (played by a troupe of terrific character actors in Justin Theroux, Lauren Ambrose, Jo Lo Trugilo, Alan Alda, Malin Akerman, Kathryn Hahn, and Jordan Peele) who make them feel loved, special, and wanted. So, when things go bad at Rick’s, George decides he and Linda need to move in with the hippies.

Had the movie taken on the ambling structure of David Wain’s first feature, Wet Hot American Summer, Wanderlust would have become a fantastic slice-of-life film about hippie culture and the downfalls of modern living. Instead, Wain chose to apply the now patented Judd Apatow approach of attaching sentiment to the last act of the film. The result is an uneven movie that, while more marketable, is not as fulfilling as it could have been.

Despite the movie’s failings, it gets so many things right that I still recommend seeing it. Paul Rudd is simply outstanding as George, whose seemingly good decisions keep backfiring on him. Every moment he is on screen with Malin Akerman’s sexy Eva is a revelation of sexual tension and marital fears that lead to some huge laughs. One scene, in particular comes to mind: when Rudd tries to talk himself into having sex with Eva as he makes faces at himself in a bathroom mirror. The scene echoes the iconic ‘mirror’ scenes in Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction, but to great comedic effect. Rudd nails it in a way no other comic actor working today could; his presence personifies sweetness and decency, which makes the ensuing raunch outrageously funny.

The ensemble cast also put their best flip-flops forward. Third act gaffe aside, Justin Theroux is terrific as the commune shaman, Seth. Alan Alda plays the aging patriarch, Carvin, as more than just an acid-fried joke. But I fell in love with Lauren Ambrose and Jordan Peele as Almond and Rodney, an interracial married hippie couple, pregnant with their first child. They radiate the joy and love Elysium is meant to symbolize, and their appearances throughout the movie remind us why George and Linda wanted to be there in the first place.

Wanderlust is a fun diversion that could have been something better, but needs to be appreciated for what it gets right. Not sure what teenage me would have said – he probably would have lamented the film’s lack of free love.

3 comments:

  1. Good review. Wanderlust was pretty uneven but there were actually many moments where I couldn’t stop but laugh at mainly because of this great cast. Let me also not forget to mention the one scene where it’s just Paul Rudd improving for about 3 minutes all by himself. That was definitely worth the price of admission.

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  2. Thank you. I agree about the excellent laughs and terrific cast. If this movie was performing better in the box office, I could see this as Rudd's coming out party as a star. I imagine he's better off being a secret weapon in comedies.

    One thought: I wonder what role Judd Apatow played in the way this movie resolves itself. He's a producer, and the brand he has created prides itself on creating raunchy comedies with a moral/ethical core. I have a nagging feeling that he coaxed David Wain into adding the third act twist as a way to make George and Linda's marital conflict more mushy towards the end. While I love Apatow's style in his own films, I'm beginning to think the formula is wearing thin.

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