Movie Review: “Wanderlust” – Utopia, Anyone?

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

“Wanderlust,” David Wain’s comically entertaining what-if scenario about a New York couple who accidentally traipses onto a neo-Hippie commune whilst fleeing the rigors of unemployment and big city anxiety, recalls the road not taken. Its charm lies in a satiric revival of a time and place where many a romantic thought they might spend their days.

But this just in: Ultimately, there was no actual revolution in the late 1960s. So, while much is now blamed on the liberal ethos of the era, fact is we are still beset with wars, inequality, lying politicians and rock-‘n’-roll that isn’t quite as good as it was. Born into the resulting world, Paul Rudd’s George may as well be the man in the gray flannel suit.

Waiting in line for a latte before the roof of his happily decadent N.Y.C. existence falls in, he tells a co-worker he’s bought the perfect West Village apartment: too small and overpriced. Sigh, such is life. But not for long. When the F.B.I. escorts his handcuffed boss out, one doesn’t have to be Lena Horne to know it looks like stormy weather.

Oh yes, change is good. It’s stimulating…makes you use your evolutionary skills and ingenuity. Just ask the downsized, 55-year-old middle management guy who goes out and founds a 10,000-store café chain. But don’t ask the millions of others who have donned an apron inside Home Depot or are selling Sabretts out front in the invigorating fresh air.

Caught off guard, Generation X-er George has no such ambitious plans. And since wife Linda, played by Jennifer Aniston, is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up, there’s no fiscal aid there. So they accept sanctuary from George’s brother Rick who, with his emotionally battered wife (Michaela Watkins), lives large in Atlanta.

Played by Ken Marino in a portrayal that would surely win an Oscar if there were a category for depiction of the most obnoxious character, Rick owns a portable toilet business. Opening up his McMansion to the unfortunate pair, but with no small diatribe intended to vaunt his superiority, he gives George a meant-to-demean cubicle job.

Let the despondency and drinking ensue, until finally they can no longer endure Ken’s award-worthy insults. So it’s back to Elysium, the “intentional community” where they serendipitously landed en route to Atlanta and spent a joyous but deliriously unrealistic night. But oh, remember that B & B room they had last time? That’s for paying guests.

Ostensibly a funny, good-natured dissertation on comparative sociology, wherein the protagonists learn a lesson or two about the grass being greener, “Wanderlust” might be the template for an adult theme park if the other kind of grass were legal. The motley cast of nouvelle flower children fills the alternate-life landscape with all the usual suspects.

Though they claim to have no leader, it quickly becomes apparent that both Alan Alda’s Carvin and Justin Theroux’s Seth know otherwise. The founder of Elysium with seven or so other peace advocates now believed deceased, Carvin offers guidance only by legacy. Seth, on the other hand, prefers a tacit, disavowing method of artful influence.

Of course “Wanderlust” soon humorously points out that, even in a macrobiotic, Greenpeace, anti-global warming atmosphere free of capitalistic repression, there are still pressures. Exhibit A: how to deal with the free love component of their new lifestyle? It’s no secret Seth would like to instate Linda into the club. George is apprehensive.

It’s simply not his style, although resident enchantress Eva, played by Malin Akerman, certainly does her best to assure a nonetheless curious George that abandoning his monogamous mindset may not be so bad after all. A good-natured chiding of 60-ish sentiments and attitudes, interspersed with a nostalgic paean or two, populates the script.

But alas, just as the idealistic experiment of the 1960s would eventually give way to business as usual, “Wanderlust” is doomed to incorporate some rather typical story mechanisms to ferry along its ribald, albeit warmhearted, farce. Supplying the compulsory, disconcerting intrigue, a scurrilous casino developer has plans for Elysium.

Although not quite Hepburn and Tracy, Aniston and Rudd foment enough chemistry to make their pairing likeably representative of the quandaries that concern their peer group. Whereas Mr. Theroux’s guru is just the sort of self-righteous narcissist that’s plagued every generation since time immemorial. The assorted free spirits are nicely imagined.

But the real standout performance and a testament to his talent, while only a shade more than a cameo, comes from Mr. Alda as the tellingly fallible, icon emeritus of an era. An embodiment of the bawdy and blithe truth evoked in this modest jest, his precious tour de force assures that filmgoers in search of some immodest fun will find it in “Wanderlust.”

“Wanderlust,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by David Wain and stars Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd and Alan Alda. Running time: 98 minutes

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