A hippie commune, a nudist, Judd Apatow producing, Jennifer Aniston waving her breasts around, Paul Rudd just being Paul Rudd: Wanderlust contains all the ingredients for an amusing romp about a couple of jaded city-slickers throwing it all in for the simple life. But unlike all the other Apatow-produced “comedies with heart” that have come before – The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Role Models, I Love You, Man, Superbad, etc. – Wanderlust falls short.
The reason is simple. For a “comedy with heart” there sort of needs to be, well, a heart. Although the Apatow formula has become rather a tedious norm of late, most of these films work because – despite the usually awful or moronic nature of the protagonists – the audience connects with them and is on their side. This heart is an immeasurable, elusive ingredient, but when it goes right the result is often much more rewarding than the usual gross-out comedy. Wanderlust tries – and in doing so manages to be very, very funny – but ultimately fails to capture this soul.
It is difficult to pinpoint where it goes wrong because the concept had the potential to be hilarious. An urban couple, Linda (Jennifer Aniston) and George (Paul Rudd), lose their dream New York apartment and have to move to Atlanta to stay with the George’s hugely obnoxious brother. Rather than put up with the suburban banality, they decide instead to live on a commune – or “intentional community,” as they call it – where free love, veganism and nudity run amok. The film is inundated with excellent comic actors – mostly taken from the director’s previous film, Role Models. Ken Marino in particular shines in his uncomfortably funny role as Paul Rudd’s insufferable brother, as does Michaela Watkins as his alcoholic, depressed wife. Alan Alda is even in it. Most of the film’s humour comes from the bizarre and hilarious characters that populate it – the nudist, the pregnant hippie, the porn star turned earth mother, and the eccentric head guru. The film’s bold style captures them and the absurd comedy they generate.
Yet, although these fantastic character actors are making you laugh, and the dialogue is funny, and the film is enjoyable, there is something hollow in the laughter; something missing. The problem is perhaps with the two leads, Aniston and Rudd. Yes, they are both solid, dependable comedy actors, and they do their best with the material. Admittedly, Aniston has aged since Friends and Rudd’s constant, affable charm starts to wear at times, but the fault is not with the actors – it’s the characters. As the film progressed, I found myself becoming more and more despairing. George became increasingly victimised, amusing and sympathetic. Meanwhile, Linda dissolves into humourlessness, predictability and tedium. Neither character was particularly developed, but Linda’s dry, unfunny dialogue – her resolute lack of even a modicum of likeability – was just depressing. Watching the film, you cannot help but feel bad for Aniston and Rudd, conforming to such overused stereotypes: the former is trapped by a dour and lifeless character, while the latter is hemmed in by dialogue that obviously restricts his comic talent. The protagonists, supposed to be the heart of the film, merely succeeded in making me feel sad and uncomfortable.
Wanderlust has everything a heartfelt comedy ought to: an interesting plotline, an array of bizarre, wonderful characters, and a fun little caper. What a pity that it ends up less than the sum of its parts.
Wanderlust is in cinemas now.