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Review: Laughs are hit and miss in 'Wanderlust'

"Wanderlust" would provide an intriguing double feature with the acclaimed indie drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
/ Source: The Associated Press

"Wanderlust" would provide an intriguing double feature with the acclaimed indie drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene."

Both are about people who search for their true selves in woodsy communes, get sucked into the brainwashing and insularity by a charismatic leader and eventually struggle to escape.

One of these films contains poop jokes. Guess which one it is.

Yes, "Wanderlust" proudly wears its sketch-comedy origins on its sleeve (except for the commune's resident nudist, that is), and that means the gags are as hit-and-miss as you'd imagine. David Wain ("Role Models") directs from a script he co-wrote with longtime friend and collaborator Ken Marino, but it's clear that a lot of improv took place, as well. That's the bread and butter for these guys and their cast members, with whom they've worked in the past on TV ("The State," "Children's Hospital") and in movies ("Wet Hot American Summer," "The Ten").

Some jokes get hammered into the ground repeatedly; others go on well past the point of cringe-inducing awkwardness, which is the point. But some do reach the levels of brilliant, unfettered lunacy to which they aspire. One extended scene had me curled up in a ball in my seat, watching through splayed fingers across my eyes. Nothing gory happens — it's just Paul Rudd talking to himself in the bathroom mirror — but it's wonderfully, agonizingly weird, and a great showcase of his ability to be daring as well as likable.

Rudd and Jennifer Aniston co-star as George and Linda, a happily married couple struggling to make do in Manhattan. But like so many Americans the past few years, they lose their jobs and find they can no longer afford the apartment they just bought (Linda Lavin is perfectly dry as their real estate agent). Reluctantly, they drive down to Atlanta to stay with George's blowhard brother, Rick (Marino), who lives in a McMansion with his obnoxious son and self-medicating wife (Michaela Watkins, who finds the delicacy in teetering on the brink of coming unhinged).

Along the way, though, they stop for the night at a bed and breakfast in northern Georgia. Turns out the place is a hippie enclave called Elysium, run by the self-appointed, self-satisfied guru Seth. (Justin Theroux is awesomely arrogant in the role and virtually unrecognizable beneath his Christ-like hair and beard). The air is thick with pot smoke and the sound of didgeridoos and the scent of patchouli, and George and Linda don't quite fit in at first.

But they end up liking it there so much — and liking the version of themselves that its permissiveness brings out — that they end up staying for a couple weeks. This sets up all kinds of fish-out-of-water antics, especially for Rudd, who serves as the straight man at the center of these zany caricatures. Kathryn Hahn, Lauren Ambrose, Jordan Peele, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Alan Alda and a startlingly naked Joe Lo Truglio all get chances to shine.

There is no real momentum, though, but rather a series of moments: George feels uncomfortable shouting out his emotions. George feels uncomfortable having people watch him on the toilet. George feels uncomfortable with Elysium's free-love philosophy — even though he has an opportunity to sleep with the gorgeous Eva (a game Malin Akerman).

Linda, who's bounced around throughout her adult life trying various jobs without ever feeling fulfilled, finds a spiritual home here and wants to move in for good. What will become of their marriage — which is never really in question, this is a comedy, after all — provides a minimal amount of tension.

Your expectations are crucial here. If you're looking for structure, cohesion and narrative drive, you'll be frustrated and maybe even a little bored. If you can be as open-minded as the drugged-up denizens of Elysium, then it's all good, brother.

"Wanderlust," a Universal Pictures release, is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use. Running time: 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.