Sunday, March 4, 2012

Will WANDERLUST Make You Wet Hot?


- Comedy is in a very weird place right now. On one hand, you've got all of these critics and pop-culture commentators screaming for comedy to be recognized at awards shows like The Oscars, where the genre has almost always gone unappreciated. In theory, I agree. Great comedy should be rewarded. And yet, when I read the justifications for *why* certain comedies should be rewarded, I can't help but roll my eyes. There's now this idea that comedy is only great when it possesses some deep social commentary - when it's essentially drama, only with punchlines. And that kind of comedy can be great, yes. But what I dislike is that that argument disqualifies one of my favorite brands of comedy - the kind that's random, absurd, and crazy. And sadly, WANDERLUST may be a victim of the current mindset that the only good comedy is the kind that tells a dramatic story with a few laughs thrown in. Because Wanderlust comes to us from the brilliant mind of David Wain - a master of absurdist comedy. Wain got his start as a standout member of the influential comedy troupe The State. He went on to form splinter group Stella, direct and co-write the cult comedy classic Wet Hot American Summer, direct surprise hit Role Models, and create the hilarious web series Wainy Days. Now, Wanderlust is another brilliantly, hilariously off-the-wall comedy from Wain - but like Wet Hot and Role Models, it's got the trappings of a more conventional comedy. And so the movie's marketing sort of pretended that this was indeed a typical fish-out-of-water, City Slickers-esque comedy with Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. In some ways - sure, it is. But in most ways, it's anything but conventional. The premise is simply an excuse for Wain and his old The State cohorts to stage what amounts to, essentially, a series of gloriously silly, interconnected comedy sketches. It's too bad that the movie's marketing tried to cover that up. Because ultimately, WANDERLUST - while never reaching the heights of Wet Hot - is still one of the most laugh-out-loud funny movies to hit theaters in a long, long time.

On the surface, Wanderlust is about Rudd and Aniston as a couple of urban yuppies who are forced to abandon their fast-paced, big-city lives after running into financial trouble. Aniston is a creative type whose big plan of pitching a documentary to HBO falls through. And Rudd is an office drone who ends up getting fired after a series of mishaps. Forced to pack up and leave their too-small NYC apartment, the two set off, reluctantly, to stay with Rudd's brother in Atlanta while they figure out their next moves. On the way, an accident forces the two to stop off at a hippie commune, where they find themselves surprisingly charmed by the quirky-yet-welcoming residents and communal style of living. So when Rudd's obnoxious brother (played hilariously by Ken Marino) becomes too much to bear, the couple decides to head back to the commune and make a real go of it there.

Paul Rudd is one of the few comedic actors who can seamlessly transition from more conventional, narrative-driven comedy into absurdist randomosity, and so it's no wonder that Wain keeps casting him in his movies. Rudd is in fine form in Wanderlust. And to that earlier point, he is great in the more narratively-driven scenes as a yuppie-turned-hippie, yet he's also awesome when called upon to just be goofy and weird. One of the movie's best gags, for example, occurs as Rudd stands in front of the mirror, psyching himself up for a free-love tryst with one of his fellow residents, played by Malin Ackermann (funny here as she is on Children's Hospital). Rudd's seemingly improvised motivational speech to himself is absolutely hilarious. And its the wackier scenes - those in the State / Stella tradition - that are far and away the highlights of the film. There's even a great little mini-Stella sketch in the movie, where Wain, Michael Ian-Black, and Michael Showalter have some great repartee as antagonistic TV News anchors. And speaking of those three, the movie's cast is filled out by an amazing ensemble of comedic performers, largely drafted from Wain's past projects like The State, Wainy Days, and Children's Hospital. So you've got Michael and Michael, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Kerri Kenney, Malin Ackermann, and SNL alum Michaela Watkins - all in top form.

And then there's Justin Theroux, who is a total scene-stealer as the slightly-sinister leader of the commune. Theroux is funny as hell, and gets many of the movie's best lines. Alan Alda also is responsible for some big laughs as the loopy founder of the group. As for Jennifer Aniston - I think she is fine. She's not an actress who is typically a favorite of mine, but I think she's got good comic timing, and she does a nice job being the straightwoman for some of the oddball antics going on around her in the film. But again - and here's where the marketing was misleading - Wanderlust is NOT a Jennifer Aniston movie. And by that I mean, it's not the sort of lame rom-com that you usually associate her with. So the bottom line is - she does a nice job here and works well with Rudd and acclimates herself well to the craziness. Would it have been cool to see a Rudd reunion with his Wet Hot ladyfriend Elizabeth Banks? That would have been cool, sure. But Aniston is good.

In any case - as much as I'd like to compare Wanderlust to Wet Hot American Summer, the fact is - it's not Wet Hot American Summer. That was a no-budget indie comedy, and therefore was free to be as insanely random as possible. Wanderlust, like Role Models, is sort of stealthily insane - fitting tons of absurd, Wain-y moments into the aforementioned framework of a more conventional comedy. And sometimes, the movie's more conventional aspects do hurt it. The attempts at sentimentality feel a little forced given all the logic-lacking absurdity that characterizes the bulk of the film. And the attempts at a good vs. evil plotline - pitting Rudd against Theroux, also feel a bit rushed and haphazard. So yes, you sort of wish that this movie could have been freed of its big-studio shackles and that Wain had been given free reign to go balls-out crazy. Instead, Wanderlust does sometimes feel like half of a real State movie, and half like a somewhat lamer, less daring studio comedy. But don't worry - the State-ness does ultimately win out. Those who go in wanting Wet Hot-style craziness will be happy with what they get. And those who go in thinking that they are getting some tame Jennifer Aniston comedy, well, they are going to have their minds just a little bit blown. I know that there were certainly a couple of people like that in the theater when I saw the film - people who seemed surprised to find themselves uncontrollably laughing at the movie's arsenal of out-there jokes.

As for the most important part of a comedy - THE JOKES - I found Wanderlust to have a pleasingly high hit-rate. Sure, there were a couple of whiffs - and one or two characters (i.e. Lo Truglio's nudist winemaker) who never 100% clicked. But overall, I laughed consistently throughout the film and, many a time, I laughed hard. There are several classic dialogue bits in this one that will likely be quoted for a long time to come - and thus, the rewatchability factor here is going to be quite high. Wain and co. have a gift for witty wordplay, and there's no shortage of that here. And oh, there's also a joke revolving around The Spin Doctors' "Two Princes." Dammit all.

Seeing a movie like Wanderlust is sort of like seeing a great indie band go mainstream. You're happy to see 'em get a shot at the bigtime, but you also worry that they had to compromise a bit of what made them great in the first place in order to achieve mass-market success. Wanderlust doesn't have the pure comic brilliance of Wet Hot American Summer, but it still retains a lot of that movie's subversive wit and out-there hilarity. David Wain and his State buddies may have dressed up their comedy in a nice jacket and tie to please the studio suits, but soon enough, the jacket comes off to reveal that yes, underneath the layer of polish, these kids still know how to rock n' roll.

My Grade: B+

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