Lost in America
"There's no one way to live our lives," hopes the displaced, adrift couple at the center of Wanderlust. Shopping between the prefab identity options available to them — squeezed, stressed urban professionalism; suburban McMansion soul death; rural counterculture opting-out — George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) are looking to find a social model somewhere in America where they can be true to themselves and each other. And though Wanderlust finally laughs off the real discomforting conclusion that it's edging toward, it's gut-busting funny when mocking their hopeless options.
George and Linda are introduced buying a studio apartment in the West Village — the agent insists it's actually a "microloft," but that doesn't make it bigger than a bread box. George is yoked to an office job, too busy to break stride when rolled onto the hood of a taxi at a crosswalk; Linda is shopping around her documentary about penguins with testicular cancer, her dozenth attempted career in the course of their marriage.
When George loses his job, they're sent packing. On a squabbling road trip to a fallback paycheck in Atlanta with George's boorish, boastful brother, Rick (Ken Marino), the couple pulls off at the Elysium Bed & Breakfast, which turns out to be a commune. (Although they have "microloft"-style realtor speak of their own: It's not a "commune," but rather an "intentional community.") After initial quibbles, George and Linda spend a sublimely relaxing, pot-scented, holistically healthy night at the B&B, which comes to look all the better in contrast to the existence they find at Rick's — he's the kind of guy who puts air quotes around "apologize," a domestic tyrant clearly detested by his family, including a fine Michaela Watkins as his tranquilized, Real Housewife-wannabe wife, leaking indiscreet references to her misery. This sends George and Linda running back to Elysium, agreeing on a trial stay before joining for good.
Wanderlust was directed with deceptive looseness by David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models), who co-wrote with Marino, though the script is obviously garnished with improvisation — big laughs come from just letting scenes run over their appointed time, watching Rick vainly chasing his stolen Escalade on foot past the end of his long block or staying over Rudd's shoulder as he stares into the mirror and tries to pep talk himself up to an act of liberated infidelity. Wain and Marino were members of a commune of sorts themselves, the mid-'90s MTV sketch troupe the State, whose members have repeatedly scattered and re-formed in subsequent projects. A number of fellow alums round out the supporting cast, including Kerri Kenney-Silver and Joe Lo Truglio as Elysium's resident nudist novelist. (Wain also appears briefly as a newscaster alongside State graduates Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, seeming to parody their unamusing, self-amused interplay from the short-lived Comedy Central show Stella.)
It's hard to remember a comedy so populated with good character bits. Despite the official doctrine of equality and unity at Elysium, distinct personalities remain, such as Kathryn Hahn's damaged-woman-come-to-shelter, whose flashes of anger through her official mellowness give glimpses of a grim personal history ("If I wanted my face covered in lies, I would still be in porn"). There are also hierarchies of attractiveness that can't be wished away and the emotional snares of free love: While George's head is turned by Malin Akerman, Linda is explicitly courted by Seth, Elysium's resident Alpha hippie, played by the chameleonic Justin Theroux.
Although it's George who initially votes for Elysium, it's Linda who really gets reeled in. There's something stubbornly pragmatic in George that won't dissolve into proper Utopianism — when Elysium's founder and elder (Alan Alda) imparts the wisdom that "Money buys nothing," George just can't walk away from arguing the point that this is only true metaphorically, not literally. (George makes the same argument after Linda takes hallucinogens and winds up screaming, "I believe I can fly" from a precarious tree branch.)
There is no comic lead working who has Rudd's flexibility. Where last year's Our Idiot Brother — in which Rudd played an Elysium-style '60s leftover — only used the actor's intrinsic likability, Wanderlust brings out a lurking peevishness behind his good-natured shrug of a smile, a peevishness that gradually freezes into a mask of unconcealed disgust. A really great movie might have followed the implications of that disgust — there's no running away from yourself — but the questing Wanderlust ultimately retreats into a conservative, prefab identity of its own: It is, after all, an Apatow production.
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