Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A married couple in a big city grow tired of living in a fast-paced, corporate-run world of soulless desk jobs and technology. So they move out to the boondocks and learn to live a simpler life. Hilarity ensues.
This whole “Green Acres” premise has admittedly been done to death. However, now that the Cold War between the “haves” and “have-nots” is fiercer than it’s ever been in recent memory, maybe we’re due for another go-round. Enter Wanderlust.
Our married couple this time is George and Linda, played by Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, who just bought an overpriced microloft (read: studio apartment) in Manhattan’s West Village. Linda is a Jill-of-all-trades who’s still in search of what she wants to do with her life. Her latest project is an overwhelmingly depressing documentary that gets rejected by HBO. Meanwhile, George suddenly finds himself without a job after the huge company he works for gets shut down by the feds. Now unable to afford their new home, our protagonists sell it at a loss and go to live with George’s intolerably dickish brother in Atlanta.
Along the road trip there, they stumble upon Elysium, a hippie commune where time apparently stopped partway through 1971. After a particularly wild night, George and Linda decide to stay in Elysium and live the local lifestyle. Hilarity ensues.
As the central premise should indicate, the comedy is pretty much entirely centered around hippies. There are jokes about marijuana, hallucinogens, nudity, lack of privacy, intimacy with nature, disconnect with modern culture, and so on. There’s also an especially funny moment in the climax that involves the hippies’ pledge of non-violence. It’s extremely stereotypical, yet none of it feels mean-spirited. After all, this is a movie about following your bliss to do what you love, which is exactly what the residents of Elysium are doing. Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that the people who go nude in this movie are precisely the kind of people that no one would ever want to see nude in any context. That’s the joke.
The topic of free love is naturally a prominent one. The movie is about a married couple in a commune of polyamory, so of course there are going to be hijinks. Most of the story beats in this vein involve Seth (Justin Theroux), the handsome and multi-talented de facto leader of the commune. Predictably, he surfaces as a rival for Linda’s affections, but it works because he isn’t overly malicious at first. He doesn’t make any overt passes at Linda, and he doesn’t seem to bear any ill will toward George. It’s easy to understand why George would be jealous and why Linda would be attracted, yet it’s also hard to hate Seth. So we get our humor without sacrificing character likability.
Oh, and also: George gets Malin Akerman to drool over. So there’s that.
After his scene-stealing performances in this movie and in last year’s Your Highness, I am now convinced that Justin Theroux is one of the most underrated comedic performers working today. I should also give props to Alan Alda, who turns in a nice little job with what little screen time he has. Malin Akerman is also a lot of fun to watch, though I’m sure it helps that the role was so squarely in her wheelhouse. Even the lesser characters are all expertly cast, with plenty of humorous moments to go around between them.
To sum up, this is a movie in which solid comedic talents play heightened characters that contrast against “straight man” protagonists for laughs. It’s a classic formula for comedy, and this particular film has jokes and actors that are more than strong enough to make the formula work. Except that the “straight men” are being played by Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. And therein lies the problem.
I understand that these actors have their appeal for some, and I’ll grant that they do have some funny scenes together in this movie (the road trip to Atlanta comes to mind). But in spite of all that, Rudd and Aniston are two actors who do absolutely nothing for me. Granted, George is supposed to be an everyman, which is a role that Rudd fits into very well. Too well. It’s one thing to be generic in appearance and demeanor, but Rudd is a vacuum of screen presence from which no comedy can escape. For example, there’s a lengthy sequence late in the movie in which George is using all manner of ridiculous innuendo to hype himself up for a sexual affair. If that’s your idea of humor, good for you. Myself, I just found it painful from start to finish.
Then there’s Aniston. To be fair, her performance here is perfectly serviceable. On the other hand, that’s probably because it’s the exact same performance that she’s made a career out of doing over and over and over again. The woman cannot act, plain and simple. Then again, Linda was clearly written with Aniston in mind, and no one can quite play Jennifer Aniston like Jennifer Aniston.
Finally, I simply must talk about the movie’s third act. I don’t know what happened, but for some reason, the screenwriters just suddenly decided that they were out of time. So they sped things up by turning a perfectly likable character into a transparent villain. No reason, no context, just a sudden and unjustified heel-turn. It was extremely lazy, to say the least. The entire third act felt like that, with a ton of story turns and jokes that felt entirely undeserved and devoid of set-up. That isn’t to say it wasn’t entertaining to some degree, just poorly established.
Aside from that third-act laziness, there’s nothing objectively wrong with Wanderlust. The jokes are well-written, the casting is solid, and none of the humor feels overly simplistic or insulting toward its audience. That said, I didn’t enjoy the film as much as I had hoped, mostly because its sense of humor didn’t gel with mine. I personally prefer my humor with a lot more bite than this movie could offer, and I’m definitely not a fan of Paul Rudd or Jennifer Aniston, though they both acted as well as could be expected. However, even though I may not have laughed all that much, the audience around me was laughing hysterically. And I didn’t begrudge them one bit.
If you’re in the mood for some cinematic comedy, give this one a try and see if it’s your cup of (cannabis-infused) tea.