Wanderlust, a comedy that looks way better than it actually is set amidst the dreck of late winter releases, features the classic setup of urbanites fleeing to a bucolic rural setting to shed the tensions of their former lives, but with a 21st century recession twist. George (Paul Rudd) and his wife Linda (Jennifer Aniston) are forced out of their dream “micro-loft” in the West Village after George loses his corporate job as a result of some unexplained corruption. Linda can’t support them; her artsy career is all failed fits and starts. Their only option is to move in with George’s brother in Atlanta.
They bicker the whole way down the Eastern Seaboard until vehicular misfortune lands them at Elysium, a commune in northern Georgia. George gets stoned and skinny dips while Linda eats up the compliments about her luminous skin. For one gloriously liberating and unifying night, what Elysium’s hirsute leader Seth (Justin Theroux) prefers to call an “intentional community” seems the perfect antidote to city living. Just for one night though; George and Linda are hippy friendly, not actual hippies.
What drives them back to Elysium is a five-minute crash course in the heights of the depths of American culture. George’s racist, rage-filled brother (Ken Marino, who co-wrote the screenplay with director David Wain) and self-medicating sister-in-law (Michaela Watkins) live in a McMansion in an enclave called Whitehaven. Their domestic life is like the saddest bits of Desperate Housewives crossed with the worst materialism ever demonstrated on House Hunters, all played at warp speed. They are such a riveting train wreck that it is almost a shame to leave them (particularly the deliciously ditzy Watkins) behind and go back to the commune.
Some of the comic action at Elysium falls flat. A wine making nudist quickly grows tedious, along with the “daring” glimpses of his prosthetic penis, and Linda’s tripping scene after ingesting “tea” at a truth circle has nothing on Homer’s chili-fueled trip in the classic Simpsons episode El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer. Aniston walks around in cut-off jean shorts, boots and peasant blouses, looking like a model on her way to an Uggs shoot. Wanderlust is her ideal milieu, assuming she doesn’t want to do anything more than look good. Her toned and tawny legs are the most remarkable thing about her performance.
(READ: Time’s review of Our Idiot Brother.)
Wain demands more of Rudd, who he previously directed in Role Models. More than is perhaps humanly possible, since one long joke about goofy, off-the-grid dwelling hippies has such limitations. The month trial run at Elysium was George’s idea, but he’s ultimately less cool with the vegan, door-free lifestyle than Linda is. As George copes with Seth coming on to his wife and tries to mingle with the Elysium dweller — most of them variations on the amiable doofus of an organic gardener he played in 2011’s Our Idiot Brother — Rudd is all double takes, furrowed brows and sarcastic asides. He has an obviously improvised scene in which he tries to talk himself into free love with a comely commune dweller (Malin Akerman) that is joyously weird, but even his very flexible comic muscles strain under the weight of providing portage when the humor runs dry. He’s helped out by the marvelous Kathryn Hahn as the most hostile hippie (a role she also had in Idiot), Alan Alda, playing the acid-damaged founder of Elysium and Lauren Ambrose, whose ethereal squatting birth scene is one of the film’s laugh-out-loud moments.
There aren’t enough of them though and the film’s pacing slows where it should build. Few things in cinema are more elusive, or precious, than a comedy that crescendos in giddy delight a few minutes before the end credits, leaving you weak with laughter. Think of Michael Palin grimly driving a steamroller over Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda or John Goodman spitting out the ear of one of those nihilists in The Big Lebowski. Wanderlust’s big crescendo has elderly nudists fleeing a black Escalade and a wrestling match between George and Seth, the first a cheap joke about flapping body parts, the second a who-cares moment.
That’s because the chemistry between Rudd and Aniston is never more than pleasant — they had more sparks when he played her gay roommate in 1998’s The Object of My Affection — so whether Linda chooses George or Seth is not a matter of urgency. But those who know their tabloid news may get a little thrill out of seeing Aniston flirting on screen with her off screen beau Theroux. They do have chemistry. (And they do share a topless scene, much-anticipated on chat boards, but she’s pixilated and they’re in a crowd.) If they weren’t together, and if this weren’t February, Wanderlust would have been lost.