February 29th, 2012

Review: 6/10 Can of Whoop Ass





            A strange movie title tends to draw attention to itself.  The viewer eagerly awaits the moment when the peculiar phrase or unheard of term gains clarity.  Unfortunately, in a movie named something as strange as Wanderlust, that moment never comes.  I had to personally look up the meaning of "Wanderlust" to understand that it meant a "strong desire to travel."  There is a brief copout that “Wanderlust” is the name of the business the protagonists create at the end of the film, but the meaning of the word is as unexplained and random as the business itself.  Barring the mystery of the name, the film is very straightforward in its intentions: to offer a simple vehicle by which the talented cast can take precedence.

Wanderlust has a story, but it is mostly beside the point.  George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) hit a serious roadblock in their dream of becoming fully-established New Yorkers.  With no money and nowhere to turn, they happen by a hippie commune (or “intentional community”) and find it appealing, having been scorned by the survivalist strictures that govern city life.  There, they meet a plethora of outside-the-box do-gooders hoping to free them of their urban restraints – and this is where the movie comes to life.  Above all, Wanderlust is an ensemble comedy, relying on contributions from a satisfyingly diverse set of characters.  The movie’s entertainment depends on kookiness and sketch-inspired laughs that don’t really have any bearing on the plot, but the characters are more important than the story they exist within, at least in terms of eliciting laughter.  You need to care about a story to care about a character, but you don’t need to care about a character to laugh with or at them.  Rare comedies accomplish both – funny characters and a meaningful plot – allowing us to laugh at the expense of someone we care about, but films that accomplish this (Napoleon Dynamite, Groundhog Day, The Big Lebowski) are dependent on a delicate blend of the ridiculous and the logical and are as rare as they are great.

            The best parts of Wanderlust are when the film allows the funny actors to do their thing, specifically: Paul Rudd talking in a mirror about what he’s going to do with his “deeeeck”, a nude novelist stomping grapes in his “dangle sack”, and a real estate agent who can get her husband off with “a flick of the finger.”  Yet, none of these memorable moments had anything to do with the plot.  If anything, the plot was a distraction, evidenced by the annoying addition of a threat to shut down the commune by casino developers, which unnecessarily widens the scope of the central conflict.  The crux of the film is George and Linda struggling between city life and hippie life, which is a wholly adequate platform for the movie to exist upon.  Everything else, including the side story of George’s brother, is unnecessary plot fluff.  Just let the hippies go: it’s plenty of entertainment for one gross-out flick.

            And the actors playing the hippies deserve all the credit for that entertainment.  Paul Rudd, as usual, is charming and fun to watch, even in moments of tense awkwardness.  He’s believable as a guy in over his head: always the one attaching sarcastic reason to ridiculous situations that cannot be rectified with wry wit.  Rudd’s triumph is never succumbing to despair over his inability to fit in.  He is too freakish for the norms and too normal for the freaks, but he handles everything with a casual, unbroken spirit.  Paul Rudd has constructed an entire career playing a cool guy you wouldn’t mind hanging out with (in fact he made a movie about this exact phenomenon: Our Idiot Brother).  Jennifer Aniston has been in a slump in recent years and doesn’t match Rudd’s effortlessness in Wanderlust.  At times, she goes a little too kooky, and it can be painful to watch someone consciously trying to appear "liberated."  With all her starring roles going to Katherine Heigl these days (which should be a blessing in disguise), Aniston should attempt to regain some of the aloofness that permeated her early career on shows like Friends and in movies like Along Came Polly.  She was endearing in those roles because of an understated confidence that trumped her lack of self-awareness.  Now, she seems like an anxious middle-ager, fretting about the loss of things she used to take for granted.

            Surrounding George and Linda at the commune is a stable full of lunatics.  There is Seth, the hippie king, who dabbles in air fucking; Wayne, the dong-dangling, nude novelist; Kathy, the word shitter; Almond and Rodney, the bi-racial couple with a preference for placenta soup; and Carvin, the “old lion” who has a complete list of the hippies who founded the commune in 1971.  The ensemble works well together because screen time is doled out equally and fairly.  These ancillary characters would devolve into stiff clichés if over-utilized, but as it turns out, Wanderlust provides just enough of each to keep them all fresh.

            But while the cast is very good, they can not account for all of the film’s problems, which downgrade the film from a strong farce to an adequate laugher.  The premise of the film is flawed somewhat from the outset, as life doesn’t offer these all-or-nothing situations.  It’s obvious that George and Linda don’t need to pick just the city or just the commune; they need to incorporate the positive elements of both.  Once they do so at the end of the film, the details are stupefying.  George and Linda, who were too broke to afford an apartment, suddenly have the funds to start a publishing company called Wanderlust (though, once again, that phrase is never explained) – which seems to be a company devoted to printing random personal accounts from their friends.  How are they going to make money with that?  And even if we are supposed to believe their business is profitable, isn’t that sending the wrong message, that they found happiness once they made a little money?   Isn't that the opposite of Wanderlust?  The hallucination montage was brutal, as they usually are in films.  And why is it such a shock to George that the hippies share lovers?  All the other strange things are expected (drugs, music, “truth circles”), but when it comes to sexual freedom, which is what defined the hippie movement, George is suddenly aghast?

            But despite the brutally unsatisfying ending, the laughs are easier to remember.  The actors and actresses are to thank for that.  And while Wanderlust won’t be remembered for much, it deserves credit for its recognition that this time, the sum of the parts was greater than the whole.