The big question going into Wanderlust was, is it a David Wain/Ken Marino movie with all the people from The State, or is it more of a Jennifer Aniston rom-com? After having seen it, my conclusion is that it’s not really either. It’s more like if you got some of the funniest people in the world together and had them try to please a studio exec. To put it even more simply, it’s a funny movie filled with funny people doing funny bits in service of a fairly generic story that’s hard to care about.
Most Likable Man in Show Business Paul Rudd and Most Why-Does-Everyone-Seem-to-Hate-Her Woman in Show Business Jennfer Aniston play New York couple George and Linda. They’ve just bought a studio apartment (a “microloft,” the realtor calls it) that they’re not sure they can afford. Then George loses his job and HBO passes on Linda’s documentary about penguins with testicular cancer, and they definitely can’t afford it. With nowhere to go, they pack all their possessions into a Honda and set out for Atlanta, where George’s brother played by Ken Marino has promised him a job at his port-a-potty business. They take a wrong turn near Albequerque, end up at a wacky hippie commune where Jo Lo Truglio runs around with his big, rubbery fake dick hanging out, and away we go.
Nothing against a simplistic studio comedy narrative, especially one that we all know going in is just a skeleton on which to pack the joke-meats, it’s just that this one paints Wain and Co. into a corner even more so than something like Wet Hot American Summer or even Stepbrothers or I Love You Man. We all know the final resolution is going to lie somewhere between the soulless yuppieism of New York and the fanatical hippieism of the commune, so it’s hard to keep the story unpredictable. Therefore all the laughs have to come at a micro level — the way people act and say things, quirks of character, a drug-tripping sequence (amazing, incidentally). I can’t imagine many better at finding those micro laughs than Wain, Marino, Rudd, Kathryn Hahn, Jordan Peele, et. al, but it’s restrictive, like me having to wear pants.
Ken Marino plays the crass materialist of the story, and the sequence in his big McMansion in Atlanta, with his drunk, checked-out wife (played brilliantly by Michaela Watkins) and asshole son, is so perfect from start to finish that it makes you wish the movie was about Rudd going to live with Marino, instead of him joining a commune. Marino doesn’t have the responsibility of moving the whole story forward like Paul Rudd does, but the man absolutely murders every scene he’s in and fires its corpse out of a cannon. It could be that suburban malaise is a less stale topic than loopy veganism, or it could just be that he’s the most underrated comedic actor around.
There are a lot of laughs in Wanderlust, but there’s a big problem with studio comedies these days, and that problem is “test audiences.” Studios screen movies like this exhaustively in front of test audiences trying to find the perfect formula for the most laughs like it’s a math equation. The problem with trying to find a perfect balance with the maximum amount of net laughs across a broad spectrum of moviegoers is that in trying to please everyone, you lose the soul of the creator. You get movies that are “funny” in a general sense, but lack personality (sadly, this is the best way to make money). Any comic will tell you, hack jokes are hack because they work. But if you tell too many of them just to hear the sound of laughter, your set starts to feel less like you and more like generic comedy. It’s funny, but not memorable. There was a dorky older critic I can’t stand sitting behind me during Wanderlust, and we laughed and groaned at perfectly opposite intervals, him loving the less blue, less absurd, more politically correct stuff, and me the opposite. Technically it “pleased” both of us, but I suspect neither of us loved it. Also, f*ck that guy. Why are you trying to please that dick anyway? He’s a 50-year-old man who wears a suede beret for God’s sake.
There are a number of regrettable story turns, including a greedy developer looking to bulldoze the commune, a recreation of the famous grape-stomp lady video, and another example of the strange Hollywood taboo against male infidelity. There’s an odd phenomenon in Hollywood comedies right now where whenever a woman cheats on her husband, it’s because he hadn’t been paying enough attention to her, and instead of saying “f*ck it” and banging his secretary, he has to learn the error of his ways to win her back (see also: Crazy Stupid Love). But if a guy cheats, it’s because he’s a worthless A-hole and the woman better leave him if she respects herself. I wouldn’t call it reverse sexism, it’s more like overcompensation by male screenwriters. In any case, Wanderlust has both. I want to believe that Wain and his co-writer Marino wanted to play up these story tropes as parody like they do so well in Children’s Hospital, but had to keep them earnest at the behest of the scared studio. Either way, it comes off lacking in edge.
But here’s the thing, the cliché and hard-to-believe infidelity subplot isn’t a throwaway. It sets up a scene of Paul Rudd giving himself a pep talk in the mirror that’s one of the funnier things I’ve seen this year. Like seriously pinch-your-dick-so-you-don’t-piss-yourself funny. It’s hard to say right now whether those scenes like Ken Marino smashing a plate or Paul Rudd dirty talking himself in the mirror are memorable enough to transcend the predictable story. They did in Tommy Boy and I Love You, Man, but that’s not something you can decide fresh out of the theater. It’s something you only realize a year or two down the line when you’re still quoting it.