Review: Rudd and Aniston in ‘Wanderlust’ features big laughs but a very thin plot

There are very few TV shows from the ’90s that have had as big an impact on film comedy today as “The State,” which is kind of amazing considering how much of a cult item that was when it was still on the air.  Almost everyone from that show has gone on to have a healthy career playing parts in comedies, both mainstream studio fare and edgier indie material.  David Wain has been able to carve out a career for himself starting with the well-liked “Wet Hot American Summer,” and his last film, “Role Models,” was a charming low-key gem.

One of the things that bugs me most in a comedy is that moment that occurs when the laughs stop and the plot kicks in, and “Wanderlust” is guilty of that in a big way.  It’s a shame, too, because there’s a lot of the film that is genuinely funny.  The film tells the story of George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston), a married couple who are just taking the big step of buying their first apartment in New York City, and they manage to do so just as the bottom drops out of things.  When George loses his job and Linda can’t sell her documentary, they begin to suspect they’ve got to come up with a plan B, and unfortunately, that involves George’s psychotically competitive brother Rick (Ken Marino) in Atlanta.  As they’re driving down to move in with him, they have to stop for the night, and that’s how they find Elysium, a commune that’s a holdover from the ’60s.

Wain and his co-writer Marino take a lot of easy shots at this modern hippie lifestyle as well as Carvin (Alan Alda), the acid burn-out founder of the place, and the large ensemble cast all contribute to the laughs.  The ostensible leader of the place, Seth (Justin Theroux), is wildly pompous and full of ridiculous buzzwords that make him sound deep, and for a little while, George and Linda buy into things.  Malin Akerman, Joe Lo Truglio, Kathryn Hahn, Kerri Kenney, Lauren Ambrose, Jordan Peele, and more all play recognizable stereotypes here, and they find many grace notes to play in the shaggy, silly first half of the film.  Not many mainstream comedies would have the stones to do jokes about ayahuasca tea and group sex, but “Wanderlust” actually makes even the worst behavior on display somewhat charming.

The moment a character shows up to confront Carvin about the long-missing deed to Elysium, threatening to build a casino on the land, I knew the story was kicking in, and the movie has to take a character and turn him into a bad guy just to keep things chugging along.  Almost every minute that’s devoted to plot mechanics is a drag, and the second half loses some of the energy that makes the first half of the film such a loose pleasure.  One of the reasons Albert Brooks was able to make “Lost In America,” which mines some similar territory, into such a classic is that he never makes the mistake of introducing a pumped-up villain just to squeeze out some phony tension.  It’s enough to simply explore this crisis point for a couple and see what happens when they confront the notion of freedom, and that’s the material where Rudd and Aniston do their best work.

Michael Bonvillain’s cinematography is sharp and helps sell the reality of the film, and in general, tech credits are strong across the board.  Wain’s got a good eye, he’s good with his cast, and he’s got a sharp sense of timing that sells even some of the weaker jokes.  I like enough of the material to recommend it, and as usual with a Judd Apatow production, there’s an improvised lunacy to many of the film’s stranger moments.  While I wish they hadn’t felt the need to bow to convention, “Wanderlust” is a solid comedy that re-enforces Wain’s reputation as a strong voice worth paying further attention to in the future.

“Wanderlust” opens in theaters this weekend.