Rating: 3.75/5Comedy’s aesthetic liability is its tendency to treat people as mere fodder for laughs. The perceived enemy of comedy is political correctness, but in reflexively turning away, comedy sometimes wallows in juvenile disobedience, willing to do anything to disturb our sense of propriety for the sake of a joke or gag. Writer/director David Wain has largely solved this problem through a comedic sensibility that is thoughtful and sweet without ever sacrificing its humor. In his first film Wet Hot American Summer, one of the funniest scenes involved a camp counselor sneaking off to have gay sex with another counselor (played hilariously by a pre-fame Bradley Cooper) after ditching his friends, who lament that they’ll never get their friend laid (with a woman, they mistakenly presume). Rather than distance the viewer from this scene’s vigorous gayness, Wain takes it seriously, allowing its passion to pierce through the film’s parodic aesthetic. Wain is thus funny and sweet without ever reducing his characters to harmful, and comedically unnecessary, stereotypes. His new film Wanderlust is similarly thoughtful, even politically “responsible,” and it should serve as a model for American comedies.
The plot of Wanderlust is strung tightly between two poles. First, there is the affluent urban world of New York, from which George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) flee when, after a series of mishaps, they find themselves with no jobs, no home and very little money. At the other end of the spectrum is the pseudo-hippie commune known as Elysium, which George and Linda stumble across en route to Atlanta, where George’s brother Rick (Ken Marino) has offered them a place to live until they get back on their feet. The night George and Linda spend at Elysium–filled with pot smoking, music and general merriment–convinces them to return after they find life with Rick to be hellish, his home a gauche and narcissistic cul-de-sac of shallowness so typical of suburban life. George and Linda serve as the ideal intermediaries between these two worlds–the commune and urban-suburban life–partly because they don’t fit neatly into America’s class structure, a pair of wandering misfits.
Much of the film’s interest lies in the way George and Linda flit back and forth between these two poles. Wain adeptly introduces us into the world of the commune through George and Linda’s reactions, making us consider positive and negative aspects of commune life that we might never have previously considered. We are allowed to laugh at the commune members–their population includes a nudist (Joe Lo Truglio), a charismatic leader (Justin Theroux) and a wizened co-founder (Alan Alda)–but we’d be lying to ourselves if we perceive them only as objects of derision. Certain customs may seem strange and awkward–the rooms have no doors and the commune members nonchalantly chat George up while he is sitting on the toilet–but others are endearing and even enlightening. At one point, the group forms a “truth circle” that at first seems laughable but actually pushes George and Linda to speak honestly with each other for the first time in a while. Wain never lets the audience dismiss Elysium, and if he initially invokes the suddenly resurgent “dirty hippie” stereotype, he makes sure we realize that they are more than just dirty: they are also funny, caring, tender, thoughtful, creative and considerate.
Even though it’s subtle at first, it becomes utterly unavoidable with Wanderlust’s main subplot, in which the Elysium commune is threatened by investors who want to build a casino on their land, that the film is perfectly in tune with America’s recent past, particularly the Occupy Wall Street movement (even if the film’s own staging of a land-occupying protest involves topless commune members). It’s less important to focus on concepts like “the 1% versus the 99%” than to see where characters allegiances lie. George’s work buddy Sherm (Todd Barry) and his brother Rick clearly see themselves aligned with the 1%, selfishly and condescendingly. Marino’s performance as Rick is a brief but wonderfully satiric portrait of a shallow, boorish man who pretends like he has everything but who can barely contain his pent-up rage. The film never simplistically asks us to choose one extreme or the other, and George and Linda find themselves, again, somewhere in between, satisfyingly so. But we can’t dismiss the commune either: it is through living there that George and Linda discover a way of life that suits them best.
Wanderlust adeptly juggles a handful of perceptive ideas, but Wain’s approach never sacrifices laughter for forced insight. For instance, a scene in which Rudd’s George psychs himself up for sex in front of a mirror is undoubtedly one of the handful of comic masterpieces of the last few years of American comedy. Wain’s approach, wedding comedy and intelligence inseparably together, most vividly recalls the work of Paul Mazursky and Albert Brooks. Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice depicts a similar milieu, complete with free love, and uses our tentative unease to drive us to disturbingly raw insights about ourselves. Mazursky’s approach favors a sweetness that Wain also excels at: both reject outright ridicule in favor of an intimate, naked closeness to their characters that is rare in comedy. And it’s also hard not to think of Brooks’ Lost in America, in which a couple decide to explore America in a Winnebago as an antidote to yuppie complacency. Wain shares Brooks’ acidic but genial humor and ability to devise intricate situations in which their characters naturally stumble across raw truths about themselves. In this way, Wain shows that comedy is not a zero-sum game pitting intelligence against pleasure: in Wanderlust both are enlivened by each other.