Ah, the throes of a mid-life crisis. That word is tossed around pretty flexibly these days. Take for example Wanderlust, directed by David Wain, which keeps its distance away from the traumatic American Beauty definition and instead harbors its more whimsy side. It’s levity is sometimes overt, but oftentimes hard to find.
This incongruity manifests itself into an insecure, but perfectly functional, Manhattan couple, George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston), struggling within the recent recession. After purchasing a “microloft” in the West Village, with enough space to do just about nothing, their careers both take a shot. Linda’s failed HBO documentary pitch comically parallels George’s abrupt white-collar workplace axing. Residing in a Georgia commune is the next logical step.
Offered work and stay from George’s self-absorbed brother Rick in Atlanta, the two travel south and late at night stop to find refuge at Elysium, a countryside commune disguised as a bed and breakfast. Their mild surprise consists of drug-smoking hippies and liberating communions of free spirits, all with trigger happy foul mouths and practices that seem only natural in their closed off quadrant. The one night stay offers a lovely contrast to Rick’s empty luxury, and they return to Elysium to bask in its fullness of life.
George and Linda take part in the commune’s traditions, led by unkempt commune leader Seth (Justin Theroux). The director Wain is brave with some of his jokes, and some hit, like hysterically pleasing moments from Keri Kenney and Kathryn Hahn who embrace their all-natural instincts. But the majority of these often grotesque appeals fall by the wayside.
This happens in part because the comedic arc peaks early and linearly peters out, replacing ingenuity and timing with strange vulgarity and double helpings of awkward.
That seems to be Paul Rudd’s forte and his minimally clever, largely frustrating strings of bumbling sarcasm continue to dominate the film’s lumbering pace. Similar to his character in I Love You, Man, his cringingly spiraling mouth spins him into trouble, spewing up funnier gag-reels than in-movie dialogue.
Rudd’s best moments come with Joe Lo Truglio, the nudist in the clan, their chemistry dating back to Role Models. His character Wayne appears to be the most ambitious in the film and clearly most confident with his full frontal prosthetic flapping about. Co-writers Wain and Ken Marino believe that multiple penis jokes are better than one.
The film’s other struggle is making us believe George and Linda really have much desire to live the forested bohemian lifestyle. Their personalities are less the film’s title, and more the penchantsto become stationary again. Elysium offers this stasis, just with a dirtier, hairier openness than is usual.
Alan Alda, the property owner who intermittently wheels himself in and out of the picture, seems the only person to fit his role, someone we assume could live this way. His senile but prophetic touch adds a nice dose of reality and a comical path that doesn’t stray towards the heavily leaned upon coarse language. Then again, his inane humor comes from lines like “money ‘literally’ can’t buy anything.” Pick your poison.
The filmmakers and I share the laughable common understanding that no one knows the exact lyrics to Spin Doctor’s “Two Princes,” humbly performed by George. Unfortunately, this is most of what we share. Even after disregarding some obvious narrative fluxes, the film still struggles to connect its characters authentically, even when the most intimate of body parts are flung about and fully displayed. The inserts of Rick and his housewife provide a sad depiction of wealth that sadly can’t get redeemed by the commune’s hunky-dory Zen.
After some uncomfortable zings, Rick argues to his wife and guests “It’s not offensive. It’s funny, it’s funny.” This is the constant plea from George’s brother and yet you can’t help but consider it is also a plea from the film itself. Telling somebody that something is funny means the joke has usually failed. Wanderlust doesn’t directly force its laughs this way, but it comes very close.