Most comedies are reliant on things like plots and dramatic arcs, rising conflict and protagonists fighting against antagonists. You know, the sort of things that one would expect from a typical movie, and the humor is drawn out of the situations that arise from the conflict that drives the narrative. Some comedies, however, do not feel the need for such trappings, believing that focusing too much on plot and conflict is a distraction. Most of the time this leads to an abysmally bad movie, one that is neither funny nor interesting, but sometimes being freed from the need for a strong conflict or a dramatic arc allows a film to be silly and ridiculous and wildly entertaining. It is a fine line to walk, but if there is anybody you can trust to pull it off, it is David Wain, the non-Michael of the comedy group Stella, and writer/director of Wanderlust.
Movie Review: Wanderlust
By Tom Houseman
February 23, 2012
There is a story in Wanderlust, but it seems mostly an excuse to put characters into hilarious situations, and the film is supremely successful in achieving that goal. The premise is a straightforward fish-out-of-water tale about two uptight New Yorkers, George (Paul Rudd) who hates his job, and Linda (Jennifer Aniston), who can't find a career about which she is passionate. After George loses his job, he and Linda are forced to move, and stumble upon a hippie commune called Elysium, where they believe in free love and no doors. As you can imagine, George and Linda have trouble adjusting to their new life.
One of my cinematic pet peeves is when scenes go on longer than they have to. In general a scene should be as short as possible, as every second longer than necessary slows down the pace of the movie. But when I say that every single scene in Wanderlust goes on longer than it has to, I do not mean that in a bad way. David Wain's background in sketch comedy helps him bring the humor out of so many different scenes through great dialogue delivered by wonderful actors. Because the purpose of every scene is not to drive the plot forward, but rather to be as funny as possible, each scene goes on as long as it is still funny. Of course, the hitch in this plan is that if you don't find the beginning of a scene funny (and there were a few that I didn't care for) you will get more and more irritated the longer it goes on.
Really, Wanderlust is just a series of opportunities for the actors to be as ridiculous and outrageous as they can. Wain has picked the perfect group of performers to accomplish this task, and almost without exception they are hilarious and delightful. As the “straight” couple thrust into the wacky world of hippy communes, Rudd and Aniston are perfect, at times embracing the insanity, at times rejecting it, but always walking the fine line between normal and crazy that is necessary for a straight man not to be boring. The closest thing the movie has to a villain is Seth, one of the “leaders” of the commune who may have ulterior motives. Justin Theroux embraces the absurdity and makes sure that Seth is never a cliché, but a fully-developed character, just one who is totally out of touch with reality.
It is the fact that all of the characters come off as real people that makes them so compelling. Alan Alda plays the commune's founder, bordering on the edge of senility, but he comes off as so real that he is one of the most likable characters in the movie. Joe Lo Truglio plays Wayne, a nudist wine maker, with a combination of optimism and naivety that makes every scene he is in a little brighter and happier. Even the characters that are supposed to be obnoxious are so committed to their characters that they make them fun to watch. Ken Marino (who also co-wrote the screenplay) plays George's obnoxious brother who so embraces his dickishness that even when he seems to take the character too far he makes it work. Michaela Watkins plays his alcoholic wife, Marissa, and manages to outdo all of the other great comedic actors by being the number one scene-stealer. Her mix of deadpan delivery and creepy laughter as she expounds on how miserable she is is just too hilarious for words.
Wanderlust is not a future classic, and is unlikely to be remembered in the same light as Wain's most popular film, Wet Hot American Summer. There is not enough meat to the story to make it memorable beyond the great performances. Already only a few days after seeing it I've forgotten the most choice lines of dialogue. But I will put it in the same company as a movie like Accepted or Beerfest, the kind of movie that can be watched endlessly on TBS or Comedy Central, enjoyed while it is on and then promptly forgotten. Wain clearly set out to make a movie that will make people happy for 90 minutes, and judging by the smile that was on my face as I walked out of the theater, that mission was most certainly accomplished.