After a long career making intentionally strange comedic fare like The State and Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain’s last couple of films have been decidedly more on the mainstream side of the equation. As funny as Role Models is, it’s never more than a very straightforward raunchfest designed to be consumed and enjoyed without sticking around in the viewer’s mind for years to come. Wain’s newest film Wanderlust is a similarly easy-breezy affair that is always amusing—sometimes downright hilarious—but never bold enough to become more than that. Everyone involved with the film is funny, and it shows, but Wanderlust feels like a slightly missed opportunity. It’s admirable that Wain and company are so focused on making everything work on a comedic level, but it can’t come at the expense of everything else.
George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) are a good-looking New York City couple who buy an expensive studio apartment—ahem, microloft—and are on the verge of financial success. That all goes downhill when George loses his job and Linda’s disturbing penguin documentary isn’t picked up by HBO, and they must relocate to Atlanta in order to keep their heads above water. In their journey they stumble across a commune—ahem, intentional community—called Elysium where people roam naked, do drugs and generally live without boundaries. At first, everything seems to be going swell for all involved, but then a conflict develops between George and the handsome Seth (Justin Theroux) and a group of developers plan to build a casino on the land, which is currently owned by Carvin (Alan Alda). All of this is resolved exactly how you’d expect it to be by the laws of mainstream screenwriting.
The problem with Wanderlust is that it’s all chuckle, no substance. Every character—from the city folk to the hippies—is a stereotype with an obvious and predictable arc. When the film is over, we haven’t learned very much about out protagonists, antagonists or other supporting characters. They exist to provide empty laughs and nothing else, and the only thing keeping the film from failure is that those laughs are numerous. Wain is in familiar territory here; he’s working mostly with names that he’s worked with before (Rudd, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino and other The State-ers) and as a result the film feels like it was made by great talents who can all squeeze humor out of a slab of limestone. Wanderlust gets quite a bit of mileage out of silly improvisation and the awkward conversations that can occur between people who don’t exactly see eye to eye, yet it never exploits it to the point where it feels like it’s saying anything. You can use the “just laugh, idiot” defense, but you have to acknowledge that all the great comedies have higher aspirations than mere ha-ha.
That said, this movie was not made effortlessly. Wain seems more comfortable as a “filmmaker” here than ever before, and particularly in the first act you see him throwing in some stylistic flourishes that maybe we’re not used to seeing out of his films. This isn’t a case of a director merely setting up a camera and letting his actors go to work, and that’s exciting to see. The cast is also at the top of their game. Rudd, charming as always, comes off best during an extended sequence in which he decides whether or not he should sleep with Malin Åkerman, which includes one of the better “talking into a mirror” scenes I’ve seen in quite some time. Most heartening is the work of Jennifer Aniston, who began a nice winning streak of performances with Horrible Bosses and continues it here. It seems like she’s finally starting to break out of PG-13 romantic comedy purgatory, and what wonderful news that is.
It’s this mix of good and bad that makes Wanderlust such a frustrating success. It’s good because it’s really, really funny. It’s bad because the lack of substance guarantees that I won’t remember a thing about this movie by next week. Everyone with their name attached to this movie has the potential to make a great film, not just a funny comedy, and on that level I wish they had higher aspirations. There are occasional stabs at socially relevant humor, but they fall flat because they’re stuck in a script full of overdone plot clichés. Wanderlust is the filmic equivalent of an incredibly bright child that refuses to do any homework or study for the tests. They may end up passing, but you know there’s so much more potential to be realized.