Wagging a limp dick at a host of up-to-the-minute issues, Wanderlust manages to feel current, and relatively funny, without ever becoming particularly pointed, resulting in a floppy but satisfactory middlebrow comedy. Although the film relies heavily on gross-out gags, from penis visuals (mostly thanks to a continually naked Joe Lo Truglio, playing a good-natured nudist) to dangling placenta and public defecation, its most strident elements are also its least amusing, distracting from the quieter observational jabs and low-key absurdism that form the movie’s core. The satire may be broad and lamely presented, but Wanderlust remains generally solid, because it’s handling of finer details and interpersonal relationships is far more acute.
Exiled from their newly purchased West Village “micro-loft” after a day of synchronized but separate work calamities, George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) flee New York City to regroup with family in Atlanta. They end up staying with George’s unbearable brother Rick, played by Ken Marino as a monstrously successful boor, pulling in six figures a year renting Porta Potties. Rick spouts racist jokes and bullying swipes toward his younger brother, clogging up these early scenes, which already suffer from a debilitating sense of manic broadness. Things get easier to bear after the couple flees, heading back to the idyllic bed and breakfast/hippie commune they’d visited on the drive down.
The action still seems overdriven in these introductory scenes, aiming for explosive crudity as it sketches out this progressive kibbutz, amping up the coarse humor that helped make the director’s Role Models a box-office success. The jokes get more toned down and effective as Wain and company ease into the absurdist style of The State (five members of which are represented here), establishing the rhythms of the commune, a place whose no-rules edict actually masks a complicated system of behavioral codes. It’s a setting that’s populated by all kinds of gently handled stereotypes, from the long-haired renegade messiah Seth (Justin Theroux), introduced with a lamb wrapped around his shoulders, to the acid-scorched antique Carvin (Alan Alda), with his jumbled memories and motorized scooter.
Wanderlust remains regressive beneath its contemporary trappings, though with slight tweaks to the usual husband-wife dynamic, which thankfully finds the woman fomenting the action while the man holds back on the sidelines, falling closer to the Bridesmaids approach than most of the male-driven material from the Judd Apatow camp. Although Linda quickly takes to the vegan diet and pastoral setting, George is slowly driven away by the passive-aggressive undercurrents of the community, with its roaming animals, complete lack of doors, and flawed barter system.
The eventual conflict balances two comparably horrible settings, contrasting the rage-fueled nightmare of George’s brother house with the quieter hell of the commune, a place where no one seems perturbed after George’s car, now community property, somehow ends up in the lake. The conclusion is that selfishness motivates nearly everyone, and rules exist for a reason, coming down hard on the side of devoted monogamy. It’s a bleak, cloistered vision of mid-recession life, one whose realities never get fully explored in the madcap scramble that closes the film.
Luckily, there’s always the latter-day paradise of Brooklyn to soothe exhausted souls, and Wanderlust fudges its third-act problems a bit to grant its harried characters a welcome middle ground, which hints at a bohemian lifestyle without having to suffer its negatives. It’s an ending that reflects the overall feel of the movie, remaining amiable despite reductive characterization and persistently jittery tone. Wanderlust may fail as satire, but its absurdist slant and eye for detail sustain it through its cruder passages.