Wet Hot American Summer is an undisputed modern comedy classic. It’s absurdist take on a well-worn genre was energetic and chaotic with a now all-star cast of comedic geniuses just playing in an open field ripe for comedy. Director David Wain’s debut feature film has only grown in stature since, even as he’s moved on to more seemingly mainstream work. His last film Role Models was an actual mainstream hit, as opposed to Wet Hot American Summer’s cult status, but still retained that chaotic, messy charm that made that earlier film so indelible. With his latest, Wanderlust, Wain re-teams with many of his former cast-mates from The State as well as a few stand-out new faces such as Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux.
Paul Rudd and Aniston play a yuppie couple forced to leave New York City after Rudd’s character is laid off. After suffering the indignities of living under his brother’s roof (the wonderful Ken Marino), the couple take shelter in Elysium Bed & Breakfast, a hippie commune founded by a doddering old man my the name of Carvin (Alan Alda) and lead by the enigmatic Seth (Theroux).
Much of the film’s central conflict revolves around Aniston and Rudd’s characters constantly changing desires and reticence to stay and make a life with the many odd balls and weirdos that make up the commune. The script by Wain and Ken Marino feels slightly inconsequential and light, never taking any surprising or shocking turns. Everything that you might figure could happen, eventually does and everything turns all right with the world and everyone you think would/could/should get their comeuppance eventually does.
The comedy mostly comes from the great improvisation work done by its talented cast. The actors such as Joe Lo Truglio, Kathryn Hahn, Kerri Kenney, Malin Akerman, Michaela Watkins, Jordan Peele, and Lauren Ambrose are experts at throwing out the innocuous, yet hilarious line. The film is littered with great comedic performances each playing completely separate from the central action of the story – what little of it is actually there. Truglio as the nudist winemaker with aspirations of being a novelist is a personal favorite and each time he comes up on-screen is certifies at least a couple of chuckles.
But the real stars of the show are Rudd and Theroux. Theroux throws himself into the role of Seth with complete abandon playing up every bit of jackassery of the character with a complete sincerity that makes even some of the lesser, more “plot” oriented moments work. Paul Rudd has become an old pro at the improvisational riff and Wain lets the actor fly throughout the movie.
In fact, much of the movie’s comedy springs from what seems to be takes of just long riffing of the actors and Wain letting them have the free reign to take control of the movie. While some great bits do come out of this, there are some scenes that play out far longer than they comedically need to and lose all their impact. As with most Judd Apatow productions, so much great material seems to pop up from these long improvisational sessions that the filmmakers have little to no idea how much or how little to put in and a need to use as much as one can for maximum effect. The film comes dangerously close to being self-indulgent at times but pulls itself from that cliff just barely.
There’s also a small plot element involving developers wanting to build a casino on their hippie land that is so strangely tacked on that it has the whiff of studio mandate on it. Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to say but it is such an inconsequential matter to the fun being had at the core of the movie, that it’s almost pointless to even mention it. It’s so pointless, in fact, its hard to understand why it was placed in the first place.
Wanderlust is an agreeable, harmless comedy with some fun moments and scenes sprinkled throughout. The film plays at its best when it lets its actors run free in the little hippie commune that its characters reside in and let them riff and interact in humorous ways. While there’s certainly insanity to much of the proceedings, it lacks the chaotic joy of Wain’s previous efforts but there’s a good comedy here that’s enjoyable enough but, outside of a few sequences, is ultimately forgettable.