Wet Hot American Summer is probably always going to be the best thing David Wain directed. That’s not to put down anything else he has done or will do, it’s simply recognizing the fact that Wet Hot is a perfect film and one of the best comedies released in my lifetime. There are a lot of elements that make Wet Hot so perfect - the heightened, playful absurdity, the fact that the members of The State had really honed their shit to a hilarious edge, the attention to tiny details - but what I think really matters is the way the characters pop. There’s a lot of love for these sweetly sketched people, even as they go in and out of impossibly silly scenarios.
That love for characters comes through in Wain’s latest, Wanderlust. There’s a lot of enormous silliness happening on screen, but all of the characters are manifestly and completely human through and through, even when they’re being utterly ridiculous (which is often).
Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as a couple of New Yorkers whose financial life falls apart. Unemployed and adrift, they head down to Atlanta, where Rudd’s brother (played with enormous asshole energy by co-writer Ken Marino) has a job for him. On the way they stumble upon a hippie commune that runs a rural B&B called Elysium; when the Real Housewives of Atlanta lifestyle proves too horrible for them, the couple give the hippie life a try.
The commune is run by Justin Theroux’s Seth, a hairy hunk who dropped out of society so long ago his cultural references include the Arsenio Hall Show and Discmans. Great characters surround him - Joe Lo Truglio’s nudist wine maker/novelist, Malin Akerman’s sexpot, Kathryn Hahn’s uptight freak out queen, Kerri Kenney’s burnt out Earth mother, Alan Alda’s wheelchair-bound acid casualty, Jordan Peele’s spacy tit-lover and Lauren Ambrose’s pregnant white woman who loves her black partner just as much as if he were the same race. Whew. That’s a run-on sentence and a half, but these characters all shine so much, all have such wonderful moments, that leaving any of them out would be a shame.
While everybody is incredible, Wanderlust is truly Rudd’s movie. He goes deep into some great physical comedy here, contorting his handsome face in some ridiculous ways. He has a scene where he’s trying to psych himself up for some free love that’s terrific, a solo scene on the level of The 40 Year Old Virgin’s ‘Know how I know you’re gay?’ riff. It’s unfair that he should be so good looking and so funny.
Wanderlust eventually loses its way once the plot has to kick in. It isn’t so much that the ‘evil developers looking to build a casino on Elysium’s land’ thing is bad - Wain plays it all very silly and broad - but more that the film has fallen into a trap it can’t get out of, a trap that I see many films fall into.
The movie needs to make Elysium nice enough that we understand and agree with Rudd and Aniston moving in, and so while there are a lot of odd and stereotypically hippie things played for comedic effect, the situation in general has to be positive. But then the film needs to find a way to get them OUT of the commune, and Wanderlust’s script never really accomplishes the gymnastics necessary to make Elysium seem like a place to leave behind. In fact all that happens is that Rudd’s character reveals himself to be stubborn and unwilling to change in any way. If that was the comedic point I’d be all over it, but in the film it plays out like a relieved return to the status quo.
The argument could be made that Elysium presents one extreme of life while Marino’s McMansion world presents the other extreme, and that Rudd and Aniston have to find the middle ground, but the movie never makes that actual argument. Instead it stalls and glides into a cop out ending.
To be fair, the ending of Wanderlust feels brutally edited down. I’m sure there is much, much more sitting on an editing room floor somewhere, stuff that perhaps makes character betrayals feel more organic. I’d actually like to see that longer cut, because the world that Wain creates is so warm and enjoyable and funny that more time in it is welcome.
Despite the cop out ending, Wanderlust is hilariously funny. It’s the sort of movie that leaves my chest hurting from laughter. It’s no Wet Hot, but nothing ever will be again. Wanderlust is certainly the very best thing that Wain has done since then, at any rate.