There are so many things to feel guilty about liking in the pure and prurient guilty pleasure that is “Wanderlust.” Starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston, this is a comedy of no manners about finding your bliss and escaping the modern grind. The laughter is served up naughty and nice, and frequently au naturel, earning it an R rating when perhaps RR (really raunchy) would have been more appropriate.
Appropriateness, however, has pretty much been jettisoned by the filmmakers, who have opted instead for the good-fun-found-in-bad-taste tradition of “The Hangover.” Directed by David Wain and co-written with his frequent comic collaborator, Ken Marino, the film is, overall, a very wobbly affair starting with all the dangling naked body parts that greet George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) when the couple pulls into a free-love commune they mistake for a B&B.
Then there’s the plot, which occasionally is beset by a sort of script-us interruptus that leaves too many narrative threads hanging, though ultimately Marino and Wain manage to pull off most of the jokes. If anything, the manic energy and aggressive sarcasm of Wain’s “Role Models” (2008), which also starred Rudd, has become much more refined in “Wanderlust,” (well, as refined as something this raw can be).
The debacle begins in Manhattan, with George in a well-paying job he hates and Linda working on her latest project, a bummer of a documentary on why penguins are dying. If you hadn’t guessed from the first frame, the “micro-loft” they buy in the West Village makes it clear that “Wanderlust” intends to take all things, large and small, to extremes. Never has so much been done with so little — the filmmakers, and director of photography Michael Bonvillain, mine a great deal of “micro” comedy out of the loft’s lack of space.
An unexpected job loss soon puts the couple on the road to Atlanta where George’s brother (Marino), a Porta Potty mogul with a perpetually soused spouse (Michaela Watkins), provides a job, a roof over their heads and an unending string of insults. All of which drives George and Linda back to the commune they first stumbled into when they headed down south. Idyllic from its name, Elysium, to the pristine pond, the wrap-around porch and the all-organic everything, this is where the movie really kicks into a new high, for at Elysium, mind-bending ideas and drugs abound.
Everything that follows spins off the notion of finding your true nature and figuring out how much of the material world, and its rules, you really can do without. It’s a perfect environment for Aniston and Rudd to do what they do best. And they both do their best, using the girl-and-guy-next-door decency that they effortlessly project, to become our spiritual guides through the insanity that ensues.
It feels like a return to form for Aniston in particular, the sweet spot she perfected in “Friends.” As Linda, she makes the nonsensical sound sensible, analyzing the absurd with such sincerity that it suddenly seems reasonable. It makes everything from her go-with-the-flow attitude at the commune to her passionate penguin pitch session back in New York as endearing as it is amusing.
The filmmakers have populated the commune with an eccentric cast of characters led by a bearded, dreadlocked guru/hot guy named Seth (Justin Theroux), who immediately sets his sights on Linda. Better known around town for his writing (“Iron Man 2,” “Tropic Thunder”) than acting, Theroux is so perfect in his enlightened perfection here that it’s hard not to applaud the fact that someone finally found the right way to put him center stage.
But just about everyone in this sprawling ensemble steps up when called upon — Alan Alda motors in as the aging and addled founding father of Elysium, and Malin Akerman floats through as Eva, the free-spirited beauty ready to bed George, if only he can talk himself into it. Eva’s proposition triggers one of the funniest riffs in the film — just George, a bathroom mirror and an exceedingly explicit stream of consciousness conversation with his private parts, made redeemable and riotous by that baby face.
Speaking of private parts, one of the movie’s major scene-stealers is Joe Lo Truglio as Wayne, Elysium’s resident nudist, winemaker and writer. The production notes make mention of all the different styles of shoes he wears, but honestly that’s not where most people will be looking. Lo Truglio ultimately gets the laughs by making Wayne seem so altogether comfortable with his complete northern exposure.
The director also seems to have found a new comfort zone. Wain has always brought a kind of zany sensibility to his films, but he has never seemed more confident coloring outside the lines. Not all of the risks he takes pay off but enough work to make “Wanderlust” a trip worth taking.