One of the most difficult balancing acts a comedy can pull off is to run towards absurdity while still telling a story that provides some emotional stakes for the characters. David Wain has never had a problem going for the outlandish and nonsensical, but he has been trying more and more to fashion real stories around his comedic flights of fancy. The Ten and Role Models each showed growth, but with Wanderlust, Wain not only gets the ratio of heart to humor better than he has before, he’s also cooked up the best State-related project in the history of that comedy collective.
Wanderlust stars Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as George and Linda, a pair of Manhattanites who are buying an apartment in the West Village as the film opens. They can barely afford the postage-stamp-sized dwelling, and when George unexpectedly loses his job, they are forced to give it up and move to Atlanta, where George’s repellently obnoxious but highly successful brother Rick (Ken Marino) gives him a job. On their way there, George and Linda stop off for the night at what they think is a B&B, but is actually a commune called Elysium that’s run by the pleasant but LSD-addled Carvin (Alan Alda). The couple, buoyed by excellent pot, unwind for the first time in years, soaking up the friendly vibe of the place. Though they do leave in the morning, George quickly gets fed up with his brother, and he and Linda return to Elysium to give hippie life, with its lack of privacy and its abundance of free love, a sincere try.
Explaining this setup doesn’t do an adequate job of capturing the film’s tone, which allows for humor to come from almost anywhere at any time; there are stretches of Wanderlust that feel as jam-packed with throwaway bits as Airplane! or The Naked Gun. Some of the characters, like Rick’s son, exist solely to deliver a single showstopping laugh, and then we never see them again.
Even with the nonstop stream of jokes, however, the movie allows the growing conflicts between George and Linda -- she’s not sure what she wants to do with her life, while he resents supporting them financially -- to keep us involved with the characters. When a love triangle develops as Elysium member Seth (Justin Theroux) begins putting the moves on Linda, the movie actually treats the emotional material with a great deal of respect. However, in this case, respect doesn’t have anything to do with seriousness, and praise should go to Rudd, Aniston, and Theroux for somehow keeping their characters grounded, even as their behavior gets more outrageous.
Every member of the ensemble cast gets at least one moment to shine. Joe Lo Truglio plays a nudist, winemaking, aspiring novelist, and takes maximum comedic advantage of his constantly disrobed state; Malin Akerman manages the rare feat of being simultaneously sexy and funny; and Lauren Ambrose nails her every appearance, especially in a scene in which her peaceful Earth Mother vibe is put to the test by childbirth.
Of all the members of The State, David Wain has always been the most cinematically ambitious, and he gets better and better with each film he directs. If he just maintains the level of quality he hits with Wanderlust, we can rejoice in a unique comedic sensibility that can wring laughs from a giant coffee-drinking fly just as skillfully as it can from the frustrations of a housewife married to an aggressively annoying SOB. But if he keeps improving, and there’s no reason to think he won’t, Wain may one day be among the very few directors responsible for a cult classic (Wet Hot American Summer) as well as a genuine classic.