Footloose and Kinda Laugh-Free

02/23/2012 4:00 AM |

Directed by David Wain

All of David Wain’s movies work best when they don’t have to take themselves too seriously. Wet Hot American Summer, the sketch comedy veteran’s inspired feature film debut, benefited from this freedom and went on to gain a cult success that the filmmaker hasn’t been able to replicate since. Unfortunately, Wanderlust, his latest effort, only achieves glimpses of that brilliance before coming up short.

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as George and Linda, a Manhattan couple who escape the big city after losing their jobs and West Village apartment. On their way to Atlanta, they happen upon a bed and breakfast in rural Georgia. The couple soon discovers they are lodging in a commune owned by an aging hippie (Alan Alda) and led by Seth (Justin Theroux), a vegan/pacifist version of John Hawkes’s character in Martha Marcy May Marlene. The couple decide to give commune living a shot, but it’s not long before it splits them apart. Realizing his mistakes, George decides to go back to the commune to win back Linda, in the process making amends with the eclectic residents.

Wain works frequently with longtime collaborators from his old comedy groups —alums of MTV’s show The State make frequent scene-stealing appearances—and has found a leading man in Paul Rudd, who has starred in all his films. Yet despite all the familiar faces in Wanderlust, it’s the inclusion of Aniston which makes the film stand out. The Friends star’s comedy background couldn’t be further removed from Wain’s brand of absurdist humor. It is almost surreal having this generation’s queen of the primetime sitcom share the screen with Ken Marino, a man best known for immortalizing the phrase, “I want to dip my balls in it!” Aniston has worked outside her comfort zone before, delivering dependably mediocre performances in good offbeat comedies (Office Space), bad offbeat comedies (Horrible Bosses) and train wrecks that will seem like offbeat comedies twenty years from now (Rumor Has It). Her range is mostly limited to making funny faces while white comedians (Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey—she’s worked with all of them) tell jokes and try to win back her affection.

The actress should be credited, however, for holding her own in this film being overshadowed in nearly every scene. That she can is due in large part to Wanderlust‘s earnest attempt to be, against all odds, as conventional a comedy as it can. The character development seems imposed, and the same goes for the comedy. At worst, the film leaves the forced, bitter aftertaste of an Ace Ventura sequel with a cast trying to gesticulate their way to a punchline that is hardly there and rarely funny. The film shows the most promise when it reunites the director with his former Stella colleagues as local television news anchors. Those brief scenes are a cruel tease, confining the talent of the comedy trio to an ephemeral taste of what could have been a better movie.

Wanderlust is a sharp departure for Wain and his cast. His previous film, Role Models, had already showed signs of a transition to a broader, more conventional style of studio comedy. The change in tone comes as a shock to fans who had relied on he and his collaborators’ satirical pedigree. One of the reasons why The State, Stella, and Wet Hot American Summer felt so fresh and worked so well was because they knew exactly how to exploit conventions for an audience that equally embraced the esoteric and sophomoric aspects of the comedy. As it turns out, Wain’s films are much less entertaining when he is employing the same conventions he is so adept at satirizing.

Opens February 24