'Wanderlust' Brings the Funny
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
One convenient thing about doing sketch comedy, particularly doing contemporary or, some might say, postmodern sketch comedy, is that it's not a form where you are under any obligation to over-worry your "point." Or even to have a point, really. It suffices to have an attitude that is at the very least enabling in the concoction of funny jokes, and then to execute the funny jokes so as to elicit laughs. It also helps to have an ending to the sketch that's coherent enough so that your amused audience will not observe, say, "Well, they couldn't come up with an ending for that." And even that's not so critical an issue that it can't be somewhat skirted over provided you've come up with funny enough jokes.
Full-length narrative comedies these days are, on the other hand (and for some reason that personally eludes me) expected to have a point. And it's in this respect that "Wanderlust," the new Judd Apatow-produced comedy starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, comes closest to tripping itself up. The movie was co-written by David Wain and Ken Marino, and directed by Wain. Aside from having propelled a good Rudd vehicle, "Role Models," a couple of years back, Wain is a veteran of the decidedly post-modern sketch comedy group The State. As is Marino. A bunch of other members of that troupe also appear in the movie.
"Wanderlust" is essentially a series of comic sketches, some funnier than others, on American lifestyles. The premise of the movie is at least partially an update of Albert Brooks' classic "Lost in America." Rudd and Aniston play a standard-issue Hollywood striver couple: His George rakes in the big bucks in the financial products sector, while her Linda is a struggling doc filmmaker, which position is the latest in a series of career feints on her part. When HBO rejects Linda's seal-clubbing opus and George's boss gets hauled away by SEC cops, they're without means, so they abandon their Manhattan "micro-loft" (their terminology for studio apartment) and drive down South in hopes of George getting work with his loutish brother (Marino), who's made his fortune in port-a-potties.
Instead they happen upon a newfangled commune filled with alt-post-hippies (some of them not so alt, or post; the commune's founder is played by authentic old-school figure Alan Alda), with whom they decide to throw in. Insert jokes about doorless bathrooms, vegan cooking, nudism, free love and many other related topics. Rudd does another gloss on his smart but more than semi-clueless nice-guy persona, reaching a peak of comic discomfort in a scene where he psychs himself up for a carnal session with uber-attractive hippie chick Malin Akerman. Aniston acquits herself reasonably well in a less abrasive variant of her condescending Rachel mode. Justin Theroux is typically uninhibited as the smarmy long-haired beardo Seth, and at times he gives off a vibe not entirely removed from that of the weird skillet-forging dude from the weird new Velveeta commercials. Comic stalwarts as diverse as Kathryn Hahn, Todd Barry and Linda Lavin all pitch in purposefully.
Most of it is pretty funny stuff. A lot is not unfamiliar gross-out sex or body-function humor in the smarter-than-average Apatow register, but every now and then, as in a dream sequence featuring a giant housefly or a couple of pointed sendups of happy-talk TV news, the movie digresses into amusingly surreal corners that are reminiscent of The State at its bouncing-off-the-walls best. Where it falters is when it attempts to balance social satire with audience ingratiation. While Brooks had the stones to end "Lost in America" with a blithe but undeniably frank admission that its characters were too essentially spineless to do anything but eat that substance with which a pie was made in "The Help" in order to continue existing, this movie rather half-heartedly arrives at its happy ending by positing a compromise of values that in fact cannot complement each other. And this is where the critic is generally told by the reader, "You're reading too much into it." And maybe that's true. And by the same token, why ought anyone be surprised that a Hollywood product advocate/validate a certain sociopolitical complacency? On the other hand, they brought up the issue first.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.