Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lost in America: WANDERLUST

It’s not unusual to find a Hollywood comedy based on the assumption that harried big-city people would love a chance to enjoy a slower-paced lifestyle out in the country. The beauty of David Wain’s Wanderlust is that it takes that basic concept and twists it all around, making it a story of self-discovery through true personal experience rather than a superficial geographical shift. It features characters who are having a difficult time no matter where they go. They’re lost, searching for answers whether they know it or not. So it’s a comedy of personal crisis. But it’s also a comedy about society in some kind of crisis and, though there’s not too fine a point put on such ruminations, it’s ultimately a fairly sharp social satire. It not easy to become who you want to be in a society that offers up only easy, unsatisfying answers.

The movie stars Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as George and Linda, a married couple who go through a sudden shift in employment status, forcing them to move out of New York City. On their way to stay in Atlanta with George’s brother (Ken Marino, who’s also the film’s co-writer) and wife (Michaela Watkins), they pull off the highway following GPS instructions towards a bed and breakfast.  This is Elysium, a hippie commune of free love, pot-smoking, tree-hugging, nudist outsiders. And you know what? It’s kind of nice. There’s a competitively mellow guy (Justin Theroux), a kindly but oblivious nudist author and wine-maker (Joe Lo Truglio), an angry hippie (Kathryn Hahn), and a gray-haired burnout (Alan Alda), among others. They have their peculiarities, but they seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company and welcome newcomers with open arms.

But, the next morning, George and Linda eventually make it to Atlanta, where they find a surly nephew, a blustering brother, and a perpetually drunk sister-in-law who one day declares her intentions to apply for a Real Housewives spin-off. It’s a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and overworked callousness. The couple bounces back to Elysium, where they find that their first positive experience is not easily recreated when staying there on a maybe-permanent basis. The film takes tired stereotypes – the materialistic bourgeoisie and the off-the-grid tree-huggers – and injects them with an energy and a wit that help them skip around potentially exasperating thinness. I mean, how many movies have you seen in which a square city dweller goes on an accidental drug trip? Here, it’s funny all over again.

It helps that the performances are uniformly so very funny. Rudd has such a sweet, easy-going surliness that even when he improvises lines of stunning filthiness, he seems to be a man trying out uncomfortable personas for himself. As he casts about for a new purpose in life, he finds himself getting increasingly distraught at the lack of easy answers even as everyone around him seems to have them. Meanwhile, Aniston throws herself into her role with such an incredible commitment and skill that I found myself taken aback. I’ve never been much of an Aniston fan; to me, she’s been capable at best. I’m reminded of Ebert’s line about her being upstaged even in scenes by herself. But here, she does her best work, a complex and hilarious performance that bounces off of the various personalities in the film in ways that match Rudd in tone and effect note for note. They bring their characters to vivid, hilarious life. These are two people in desperate need of something that they can’t even explain: a place and a purpose. They’ll know it when they see it.

David Wain films are about odd groups, makeshift communities forming on the margins of society. There are the Elysium hippies here, but similar kindred spirits can be found in the summer camp of his cult favorite Wet Hot American Summer and the troubled-kids mentorship program and the Live Action Role Playing of Role Models (one of the funniest movies of recent memory). These are films in which collections of weirdoes find reason to congregate and reasons to genuinely like and care for each other. Somehow Wain pulls off a tricky feat, getting big laughs out of these characters’ eccentricities and then still managing to find the genuine warmth and humanity within the group dynamic. There’s genuine human interest here. By the end, you just care about them and want to see them all end up happy, and that’s what makes the laughs worthwhile.

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