Silver Screen: Wanderlust ***1/2
In Wanderlust, the new film from David Wain, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as a pair of Manhattanites who find themselves priced out of their big-city lifestyle. Rudd's George is a company man whose entire office is laid off after a total corporate meltdown on the same day his dilettante wife Linda (Aniston) discovers that HBO won't option her well-intentioned and stunningly depressing documentary about the plight of wildlife in Antarctica (“But it's March of the Penguins meets An Inconvenient Truth!”).
Despondent and near penniless, they pack up the car and go to stay with George's boorish brother Rick (Ken Marino), who finances his shallow suburban lifestyle by owning and operating a Port-a-Potty business. Enroute to Rick's, they're waylaid by car trouble (and a naked jogger) and wind up crashing at Elysium, a hippie commune founded by a doddering ex-acid freak (Alan Alda) and populated by a group of new-age free spirits led by the dynamic doofus guru Seth (Justin Theroux). Enticed by a night of pot smoking and a living-room jam session, followed by a group meal and a laid-back next afternoon, George and Linda decide to drop out of society and fly the freak flag.
Of course, it turns out that hippie living has more than its share of perils. The free-love atmosphere overwhelms George, who's tempted by sweet siren Eva (Malin Akerman), while Seth sets his eyes on Linda and seems to have homewrecking in mind. The resident nudist (Joe Lo Truglio) won't stop foisting his hobbies on everyone, especially passages from his in-the-works political novel. The extremist vegans lambast George for swatting a fly, weeping, “What if that fly had babies?” (“You mean maggots?” George asks, unhelpfully.)
Essentially, it's one long hippie joke, but wow is it a funny hippie joke. Wain and cowriter Marino put together an exceptional series of sight gags, quips, and oddball characters, only occasionally overextending their comedic setpieces. (Jennifer Aniston's I-believe-I-can-fly acid trip is one among a few cartoonish cliché s.) And to deliver the sharp material, they've assembled an incredible ensemble that includes Kathryn Hahn, Todd Barry, Lauren Ambrose, Jordan Peele, and the vast majority of their fondly remembered sketch group the State, including Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and Kerri Kenney. The always charming Rudd anchors the film, but Marino, Lo Truglio, and Theroux swipe most of the great lines and dominate their scenes.
While the movie does occasionally lapse into easy hippie-bashing, Wain and Marino treat the commune with some affection. Just as important, they're equally savage in sending up other lifestyles, making the dropout option seem not so much crazier than spending untold thousands to buy a boxy studio apartment in the city that the realtor insists on calling a “micro-loft,” or opting for a conventional life in a suburban McMansion. Wain's vision of suburban hell is withering and spot-on, with a pill-addled wife (Saturday Night Live castoff Michaela Watkins) barely acknowledging her spiteful son while flatscreen TVs flicker on seemingly every available surface.
As pure comedy, Wanderlust is a mostly unqualified success. Wain has already amassed an impressive filmography that includes the wonderful cult flick Wet Hot American Summer, the underrated and inventive anthology film The Ten, and the more conventional but surprisingly effective Role Models, but this is his most mature and well-rounded film to date. It's so good, in fact, you can't help but wish it was just a little better in the final act, because what it ultimately lacks is a solution. Wain and Marino archly send up several different lifestyles without ever managing to generate any insight into what might be a good way to live. George and Linda's solution is cobbled together from disparate subplots running throughout the film, and while their salvation makes for a funny gag, it never actually answers the question the film poses. Even an ambiguous answer to that question would have been superior than the clever dodge they settle on-- but as clever dodges go, it's pretty damn funny.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.