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Wanderlust is basically director David Wain’s recipe for a linear narrative: Take Wet Hot American Summer‘s free-spirited raunchiness, add a dash of Role Models‘ straightforward storytelling and inappropriate humor, mix in copious members of The State and blend. The result isn’t quite fully cooked, but it boasts some sweet notes.
Co-written by Wain and longtime collaborator Ken Marino, the film is a valiant attempt at diverging from the duo’s sketch-comedy roots. The story follows George (Paul Rudd) and his wife Linda (Jennifer Aniston) as they attempt, and fail, to make it in Manhattan. Newly jobless and strapped to an apartment they can’t afford, the duo is forced to temporarily relocate to the posh Atlanta abode of George’s brother Rick (Marino).
On the drive south they make a pit stop at Elysium Bed and Breakfast, an “intentional community” housing an eclectic group of kindly hippies. Their overnight visit includes an epic party and an introduction to the group’s leader Seth (the scene-stealing, painstakingly hilarious Justin Theroux).
Their stay with Rick and his unhappy wife Marissa (Michaela Watkins) proves short-lived, as George and Linda are quickly fed up with Rick’s condescending ways, and return to Elysium for a two-week trial. What ensues is a journey that makes the couple question their life goals and their relationship.
If it sounds a bit contrived, that’s because it is. At times, the connect-the-dots nature of the narrative seems little more than a pretense stringing together improvised moments with the comedically qualified cast. By the third act, reverting back to the plot line diffuses some of the film’s funnier moments, but it doesn’t extinguish them entirely. And that’s largely due to the performances, which are, when all is said and done, what this film sets out to showcase. In that vein, it succeeds entirely. Rudd is the obvious standout; he’s in his element among many longtime colleagues, and it shows. His comedy is rooted in his inherent likability — he’s self-deprecating, adorable, a little neurotic and seemingly without ego. Among his many soon-to-be classic scenes, a loin-girding pep talk in the mirror is way, way up there.
Theroux absolutely crushes it as Elysium’s crunchy, hyperbolic, free love-peddling leader. From his entrance (a baby lamb slung over his shoulders) to his guitar battle-style display against George to his delivery of a line about standing in the rain (“I drink the nourishment that God is feeding me through her cloud teats”), his performance is spot-on.
Aniston holds her own serviceably among the more comedic players, blessedly not dropping the ball, and even managing to loosen up during a scene in which she’s given a hallucinogen. Marino, even in his limited screen time, is the perfect villain, although Watkins upstages him completely. Her portrayal of a bored Atlanta housewife stuck in a loveless marriage is rife with sarcasm and venom, and despite the animosity Watkins delivers every sour note with a sugary purr. She’s in the film for perhaps a collective 20 minutes, but she’s one of my favorite things about it.
Elysium’s core members shine as well — among them, the talented Kathryn Hahn as inadvertently desperate, prickly Karen; Joe Lo Truglio as nudist vintner Wayne (his penis should get its own credit, as it has more screen time than a quarter of the cast); and the always-funny Alan Alda as the compound’s grandfatherly founder.
So if you’re willing to sit through some of the more manipulated plot points to get to the gooey comedic goodness within — and especially if you’re a fan of Wain and Co’s previous work — Wanderlust is a solid option. As Marissa explains to Linda early on, cocktail hours are flexible. “Why have 5 o’clock when you can have 4:30?” she chirps. Wanderlust is that preemptive happy hour: perhaps a tad structurally inappropriate, but you’ll walk away with a buzz regardless.
Wanderlust opens today nationwide.