“Wanderlust,” the new project from Judd Apatow and associates, starts as though it were ripped from today's (or at least this decade's) headlines. Yuppie couple George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) buy a tiny, fabulously expensive Manhattan “micro-loft.” George suddenly is downsized out of his job; HBO passes on Linda's depressing documentary about penguins with testicular cancer; and the housing bubble bursts. Suddenly they owe more than the apartment is worth.
They head off for Atlanta to crash with George's unbelievably obnoxious brother (Ken Marino), but have an accident along the way. And, from that moment on, “Wanderlust” — whose title, by the way, is unrelated to its content — may still feel ripped from the headlines … headlines from 30 or 40 years ago.
George and Linda take refuge for the night at a hippie commune in the woods. Yes, a hippie commune. I had packed up that phrase in my rhetorical cedar closet years ago, assuming I'd never have to utter it again. It's sort of a satirical version of the opening section of “Easy Rider.” From then on, with exception of the updated lingo and one minor (but very amusing) subplot, everything suggests that this commune dates from somewhere between 1967 and 1975. In fact, you might even initially think that “Wanderlust” is set up like “Brigadoon,” with George and Linda having stumbled through a mystical time warp.
Alternately, you could consider it to be the comedy version of “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Once again, the group claims not to have leaders, but is clearly led by guitar-playing know-it-all Seth (Justin Theroux). Most of the others are mush-brained space cadets, presumably Seth's pawns. Just who pays for food and necessities is never made clear.
Unfortunately, it's not just the commune that seems transplanted from 40 years ago. So does the film around it. About halfway through, I began entertaining the notion that this was a rewritten resurrection of some dusty unproduced screenplay that Apatow and his friends had found in Granddad's attic. (It's not.)
The original of this subgenre is Hy Averback's “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” the very funny 1968 Peter Sellers vehicle written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker.
Many of the plot elements and joke concepts are similar. It doesn't take a psychic to predict, for instance, that George will embrace the idea of free love, then freak out when Linda follows suit.
It's hard to imagine a pair of performers more instantly likable than Rudd and Aniston, but Aniston's role is decidedly secondary to Rudd's George; and George, without explanation, starts acting as though he has multiple-personality disorder about two-thirds through, apparently channeling one of the backwoods cretins from “Deliverance.”
The most enjoyable presence on the screen is Alan Alda, as the vaguely senile final survivor of the commune's founding.
Yes, there are some funny lines along the way: We realize exactly how long Seth has been away from the society when he rhapsodizes to George and Linda about the joys of life in a world without “your pagers and zip drives, your fax machines and Arsenio Hall.”
Back when the “late '60s” — which actually lasted until 1975 (don't ask) — were actually happening, most Hollywood visions of the counterculture felt like the work of filmmakers way too old and clueless. I'm looking at you, ghost of Otto Preminger. It's ironic that here the filmmakers seem too young to have a clue.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).