There’s a great deal to be said for a movie that causes simple belly laughs. Good direction doesn’t hurt either. David Wain, one third of the comedy troupe that was Stella and the brains behind both MTV’s The State and movie Wet Hot American Summer, is an above-average director, clearly a man who loves comedy enough to figure out how to shoot and cut a movie to maximize each joke. Wanderlust is a surprisingly filthy (owing to the tenor of Wain’s usual brand of comedy), surprisingly well-constructed joke-a-minute movie.
Wanderlust’s problem is that it aims too high: Wain, presumably tired of making movies that are just excuses for an endless string of gags, tries his best here to tell a story about a real functioning relationship. To a certain extent, he’s been smart in going after this goal, in that he cast two likeable leads who are naturals at straight-faced comedy. But he’s packed the rest of the movie with his buddies — State veterans Joe Lo Truglio (hilarious, deadpan, naked, hung), Kerry Kenney (intentionally irritating), Michaels Ian Black and Showalter (reliably absurd), and Ken Marino (the best performance in the movie) — all of whom are so funny and have such a natural-feeling rhythm with one another that we often wish the movie were about them and not the central relationship.
But the majority of the time, we’re asked to care about two movie stars, Paul Rudd (George) and Jennifer Aniston (Linda), who pretend, because they’re in a movie, to be married to one another, broke, and so desperate for a place to stay that they’ll shack up with a bunch of hippies at a commune in Georgia. They actually stumble upon the place by accident and wind up spending an inspiring first night with the pot-smoking, drum-circling, vegetable-farming crew. But when they throw in their chips for the long haul, the hippies quickly become too much for the ousted Manhattanites to take. The movie is successful when it sidesteps becoming an endless series of easy hippies vs. yuppies jokes, and instead dives deep into the intrepid weirdness of each character.
Those weirdnessess would have been enough to carry the movie, I think. And that wouldn’t have required anything more than a dedication to oddball internal logic. It’s within the logic of the relationship story that there are major flaws with Wanderlust. A running plot strand has the free-love commune members subtly tearing down George’s uptight New Yorker persona in order to distance him from Linda and eventually take her for themselves. The idea of hippies who would be so Machiavellian is clever, or it would be if it were followed through. But Wain executes the George vs. hippies conflict with an adequate-at-best interest in storytelling, as if he were anxious to get back to directing scenes where his friends do hilarious things. Wanderlust is obviously a series of sketches that take equal aim at hippies, yuppies, and the culture at large, and it only fails when its jokes slow to the point where we remember the story we didn’t care about to begin with.