There’s a scene late in Wanderlust in which Paul Rudd’s character, George, is staring into a mirror and using a bizarre hillbilly accent to talk to his penis. He’s attempting to psych himself up for sex that he doesn’t want to have. It’s the funniest scene I’ve seen in a film in six months. There’s no way any of it was in the script — it’s just Rudd ad libbing, talking about putting his dick in a woman’s “vag” — and it goes on for a good five minutes. It’s the kind of comic brilliance you can’t get from a screenwriter. You can only find that in an actor like Rudd, who is probably better off script than most A-list actors are delivering lines from a $5 million screenplay. Paul Rudd is gold, so charming, so effervescent, so likable, and so funny that any kind of structure is detrimental. If that scene had gone on for the entire 90 minutes, Wanderlust might have gone down as one of the great absurdist comedies.
Unfortunately, the rest of Wanderlust doesn’t live up to that scene. The problem inherent in having a set of sane protagonists react to extraordinarily annoying characters is that you’re forced to populate your movie with extraordinarily annoying characters. Writer/director David Wain, a veteran of sketch comedy (“The State,” “Stella,” “MadTV”), has basically created a series of sketches built around these characters set in an “intentional commune,” and like most sketch comedy, it’s more miss than hit. But also like sketch comedy, you’re often willing to forgive the misses if the hits are big enough.
That’s not the case with Wanderlust.
The movie stars Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as George and Linda, a New York couple who — after buying their first studio apartment in the West Village — immediately lose their financial ability to hang on to it. They decide to move in with George’s brother (Ken Marino at his obnoxious worst) in Atlanta. George takes up a data entry job with his brother’s Port-O-Potty company, but doesn’t last for more than a day before his elder brother’s abuse gets the best of him. On a whim, George and Linda relocate to a hippie community they visited on the way to Georgia and decide to embrace a different lifestyle.
The pastiche of sketches that takes place in the commune fit snugly into a generic screenwriting formula. George is the first to embrace the new way of life, but then as reluctant Linda begins to drink the Kool-Aid — and flirt with the commune guru, Seth (Aniston’s real-life boyfriend, Justin Theroux) — George has second thoughts, especially once his his wife transforms into a free-love vegan who takes shits on the lawn and flashes her breasts at news cameras.
There are several bright moments in Wanderlust, but almost all of them involve Rudd. Aniston, who is playing more of a straight man, is well suited to the role, but she doesn’t have much with which to work. I appreciate her willingness in the last year to take on decidedly non-Aniston roles (see also Horrible Bosses), but she’s not really capable of bringing her own comedy to what I have the sense is a largely ad-libbed film. She is not the problem with Wanderlust, however, nor are the performances of the ensemble — mostly David Wain regulars. It’s that the characters are insufferable. That’s the point, but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch. They’re a series of one-note jokes: Joe Lo Truglio is a boring, nudist winemaker; Kathryn Hahn (who I typically enjoy) is violently anti-violence; Kerri Kenney plays a painfully oblivious, terribly lame hippy; Lauren Ambrose is a starry-eyed and pregnant free spirit; Malin Akerman’s only personality trait is a desire to fuck George; and Theroux’s Seth is obnoxious to the point of tedium. Only Alan Alda’s character — who has only one joke, which he repeats throughout the film — acquits himself well, but that’s because he’s the only other character in the commune that has any hesitations about their way of life.
That said, Wanderlust isn’t a bad film. It’s uneven, somewhat forgettable, and there are a lot of dead spaces and poorly formed ideas that go on way too long. Nevertheless, like a lot of Paul Rudd films, Wanderlust makes for easy comfort viewing at home. The film also has the added benefit of what may end up being the funniest scene of 2012. It’s added evidence, however, that Paul Rudd needs more one-man shows and fewer middle-of-the-road comedies.