One of the movies’ most ancient tropes is the Big City Man/Woman who through a fortuitous circumstance finds him or herself in Small Town America where his or her enthusiasm for life is resurrected. Wanderlust, the new film from director David Wain, provides a miniscule twist on the concept. The careers of George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) are magically ruined on the exact same day leading them to abandon their brand new New York City “microloft” for George’s brother’s McMansion in sprawling Atlanta. On the way there, tired and desperate for a place to crash, our wedded duo winds up in Elysium Cove, not so much a Bed & Breakfast as a hippie commune, governed by the good-willed if slightly amnesiac Carvin (Alan Alda) but run by Seth (Justin Theroux) who is like a more whimsical John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Maybe it’s the commune’s disregard for the bourgesoie of normal life, or maybe it’s the pot, but George and Linda seem taken with this north Georgia haven, but not so much that they stop from pressing onward to Atlanta. Alas, George’s brother (Ken Marino) turns out to be more obnoxious than Danny McBride, causing his wife Marissa (Michaela Watkins) to institute a rule that stipulates a 4:30 Happy Hour as opposed to the traditional 5:00 and in no time George has convinced Linda to flee back to Elysium Cove and give it a 2 week trial run.
From this point, Wain and his co-writer Ken Marino essentially follow the play-by-play of these sorts of Urbanites Out Of The City manuscripts down to the letter, just with a bit of new age wackadooness and organic farming thrown into the mix. At first George is urging them forward and Linda is reluctant so what do you suppose? A reversal? Do you suppose Seth, who has instituted a policy of free love between he and his ultra-beguiling lady friend Eva (ultra-beguiling Malin Akerman), will eventually have eyes for Linda? Do you suppose there will be a greedy businessman who wants to buy the land to open up an evil casino? Do you suppose if there is a nudist (Joe Lo Truglio) there will be lots of penis jokes? Do you suppose if there is a pregnant woman she will…… The greatest irony is that the nudist doubles as an aspiring mystery writer and is currently composing a novel with a brilliant twist that leaves every reader spellbound. Alas, Wain and Marino’s writing cannot match their own nudist.
So when the screenplay becomes a basic trail guide it must then hope its actors can become tour guides who spice up the proceedings. And they do all admiringly apply their game faces and get on with it, though Aniston still seems just a bit too anal retentive even when she’s supposed to be all loosey and all goosey. Seriously, you’ve never seen such a tightly wound woman re-enact Russell Hammond’s “I am a golden god!” sequence. Rudd is Rudd, ab-libbing lines on top of lines on top lines, so much to the point that I’m beginning to suspect in the very near future he’s going to make a movie where all he does is ad lib. For two hours. Theroux (an actor I’ve always liked) is really just a caricature but also at least makes it believable that his vibes would attract the peace, love and understanding eccentrics as opposed to the extremist eccentrics. And Ms. Akerman, plagued as always by so little to do (no arc whatsoever), still re-asserts her underrated and understated comedic chops. Few people can make such absurd lines sound so sincere.
Wanderlust, though, has a secret weapon, and her name is Michaela Watkins. Essentially appearing in but two scenes, she is no doubt meant to skewer the persona of so many Real Housewives Of Atlanta. And while in that first instant or two you might suspect her lone trait will be Annoyance, she mines for something funnier and, ultimately, surprisingly, truer. Her line readings evoke a Female Walken clouded by a tequila and lime haze, the words and punchlines never quite arriving at the expected time and place. And while Wanderlust is, of course, partly just meant to be a “fun-filled comedy!” it also can’t hide the fact it wants to comment on society’s alienation, where we fit in and how we reach an understanding of our deeper selves. The film, however, chooses to wrap this all up with a pitiful news station montage. It is difficult to believe anyone has reached a higher plain, save for Marissa because, as it turns out, she was the only one with any sense of herself all along.
A glorious scene that’s meant to function as George’s wake-up call (because, of course, he can’t wake himself up) instead shows that Marissa’s stasis was a slow-burning trap that she springs at just right the moment, allowing her to utter that which bursts out of the gate to take the lead in the Line Of The Year Sweepstakes. “Reality shift.”