There is a single scene in Wanderlust that might just be the funniest of star Paul Rudd's career. Lofty statement, I know. I say this coming from a place of deep reverence for the work Rudd has done in comedy over the last decade and a half, especially with Wanderlust director David Wain, who also brought the best out in him in Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten.
On paper, it's a small scene. Rudd, a troubled New York business man who finds himself suddenly trapped in the hippy-dippy society of an upstate Georgia commune, is trying to psyche himself up to experience "free love" with a rather gorgeous and straightforwardly sexual Malin Akerman. In any other movie, this scene would be a quick throwaway chuckle. Ashton Kutcher would make a few funny faces while getting himself ready to go, or perhaps Seann William Scott would make some goofy grunting noises to let us know exactly how pumped he is. Here, Rudd basically repeats the same joke again and again, but with slightly different voices every single time. He improvs a million different and increasingly bizarre ways of saying the same thing over an almost unbearably long time (minutes, easily), and by the end of it, I was practically on the floor.
That scene is as good a summation of why Wanderlust works as anything I could write here. This is a premise we've seen done many times over. Uptight city couple finds themselves surrounded by weird hippies! Hilarity ensues! And yet under the supervision of Wain and co-writer/co-star Ken Marino, Wanderlust morphs into something a good deal more interesting, and far funnier than it probably has any right to. At times it certainly leans on the kind of saccharine sweet life lessons and scatological humor most mainstream comedies tend to crutch themselves on, but those moments are far outweighed by the kind of wonderfully, awkwardly out-there comedic sensibilities of its creators.
Before Rudd gets to that commune, he's George, a man living in New York with his wife Linda, played by Jennifer Aniston with the same surprising comedic verve that made her such an unexpected delight in last year's Horrible Bosses--albeit with nowhere near as much lustful bitchiness. He's an office grunt who can barely afford the new, tiny apartment they've just purchased in the West Village. She's the kind of modern free spirit you've seen countless times over. She's too uptight to really indulge in a truly creative life, not to mention utterly unable to pick a singular vocation. She's essentially done everything but try her hand at making handcrafts and selling them on Etsy. Her latest flight of fancy, working as a documentary filmmaker on a stirring little piece about penguins with testicular cancer, turns out to be a bust, which becomes an even bigger problem with Rudd's office is raided by the FBI, thus putting him out of work.
Suddenly out of work and homeless, the pair decide to take up with Rudd's asshole brother (Marino) who lives in Atlanta with his self-medicating depressive of a wife (Michaela Watkins) and aggro son. He graciously gives them a place to stay in their McMansion, and Rudd a job at his porto-potty rental business. But before they arrive there, the pair spend a wonderful night at a bed and breakfast that, in truth, just functions as a side venture of the larger, more insane hippy collective that lives on the property. Headed up by a bearded, smooth-talking vegan (Justin Theroux, virtually unrecognizable), their philosophy of love, happiness, and basically everything that isn't George and Linda's life at this point seems altogether appealing. Their night of pot-smoking and skinny dipping turns out to be such a formative experience, that within hours of enduring Marino's ill-natured shit-talking and his wife's Wellbutrin and margarita fueled haze of self-loathing, they're out of there and back to the colony.
Of course, it's not a story as simple as them going there and having a good time, otherwise the movie would be rather short. It doesn't take long for the residents of the commune--which include Kerri Kenney as the resident weirdo den mother type, Lauren Ambrose as the spacey, pregnant wife of Jordan Peele, Kathryn Hahn as a woman hypersensitive to everything, Joe Lo Truglio as a nudist novelist and winemaker, Alan Alda as the hoary, cranky, perma-fried last surviving founder of the group (supposedly), and the guy who was always playing guitar in Wet Hot American Summer as the guy always playing guitar in Wanderlust--to get on George and Linda's nerves.
If there's any notable flaw in Wanderlust, it's that it sometimes has a hard time figuring out ways to mine interesting comedy out of this premise, which again, we've seen many times over. There are moments when George and Linda's adventure seems plucked from some bad sitcom, with all the poop jokes and half-assed wisecracking that entails. However, those moments are thankfully in shorter supply than the truly original, and utterly bizarre ones that are truly hilarious.
Wain's distinctive style of directing is very much on display here. The sort of lingering-too-long jokes, deeply awkward exchanges, and constant callbacks inherent to the style of humor in Childrens Hospital, The Ten, and Wet Hot American Summer are front and center here. The plot is perhaps a bit more in the vein of Role Models, a more disappointingly facile chapter in Wain's filmography, but the laughs are there.
How many of those laughs were scripted versus improvised is perhaps up for debate, but Wanderlust is almost always better when the actors seem like they're going off-the-cuff. Rudd, who has shown his improv chops time and time again, is gloriously funny here, and not just in that one scene I mentioned earlier, either. He and Theroux riff wonderfully off one another, and even Aniston, who is not an actress I often associate with improvisational humor, is quite good as well. She's perhaps shown up a bit by the likes of Kenney, Watkins, and Akerman, but she's honestly charming and believable in the part.
Wanderlust ties up perhaps a bit too neatly in the end, opting for the overly sweet conclusion over something a bit more realistically off-kilter. But it's a satisfying enough conclusion to the myriad laughs had prior. Maybe it won't be remembered as a classic as Wet Hot American Summer now is, but Wanderlust is nonetheless great, very nearly in spite of itself.