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Stepping away from sketchy experimentalism without making himself bland, director David Wain finds multiplex-friendly happiness in Wanderlust, a finding-yourself comedy with strong commercial appeal. Stars Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are at home here, playing against a stock-raising performance by Justin Theroux as the charismatic libertine who prompts their adventure.
Having seen their upwardly-mobile New York life derailed by a layoff, George and Linda intend to regroup while living with George’s brother Rick (Ken Marino, who wrote the film with Wain) in Georgia. But after an accidental pit stop at Elysium, a hedonistic “intentional community” (don’t call it a commune) overseen by Theroux’s Seth, Rick’s crassness and bullying are too much to stomach. The couple puts materialism on hold to try living with the hippies.
Though we’re introduced to Elysium by its resident wine-making nudist (Joe Lo Truglio, enjoyably calm under the camera’s R-rated gaze), and the community’s rejection of social barriers is extreme (George can’t have a bowel movement without company), Wanderlust‘s weakness for anything-goes caricature is balanced by well-rounded performances. Theroux in particular avoids outright parody, demonstrating real interest in his new guests instead of making Seth a one-note cult leader. But similar restraint is shown by Malin Akerman (less Sixties-shallow than others would be while promoting Elysium’s free-love ideals) and Alan Alda, playing the place’s acid-damaged but not quite clueless founder.
Though it initially seems Aniston will be stuck in the naysayer role while Rudd embraces local customs, the characters soon trade places. Aniston would have been badly served by an hour of uptightness and criticism, but the character’s eventual openness suits her — the part isn’t as big a departure as some of the film’s buzz suggests (voyeurs anticipating a topless scene will be disappointed), but she’s appealingly loose while George struggles with his deeply ingrained squareness. (In a very funny solo scene, Rudd expands on a gag from I Love You, Man, testing out lewd slang and finding himself completely unable to pull it off.)
The screenplay offers the most familiar conflict it can think of as backdrop for the impending marital crisis: Corporate investors arrive, bent on bulldozing Elysium for a massive commercial development. But Wain pays little attention to the perfunctory threat, focusing instead on its potential to widen the gulf between husband and wife. If the ensuing plot beats are easy to chart in advance, they’re sold by a good-natured cast and filmmakers who understand they’ll get plenty of laughs even without digging too deep in the bag of tricks displayed in outings like The Ten.
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