What does it take to get two highly caffeinated, smartphone-addicted New Yorkers to drop out and suddenly join a hippie commune? For David Wain, the director and sketch-comedy veteran behind The State and Role Models, the first challenge in the fish-out-of-water Wanderlust is to provide plausible motivation for his leads to jump out of the bowl.
To that end, he throws a litany of failures at George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) in the movie's opening minutes: Immediately after buying a very small, very expensive Manhattan studio apartment, George loses his job, and Linda's documentary about penguins with testicular cancer gets passed over by HBO.
Broke and homeless, they retreat to George's brother's sterile McMansion in the Atlanta suburbs to regroup, but find his aggressive racism and misogyny too much to bear. Heading back to the flower-powered commune they accidentally spent a night at while driving to Atlanta seems like an entirely reasonable option, given how cartoonishly monstrous his brother is.
The residents of the commune, led by the guru-like Seth (Justin Theroux), are just as cartoonish in their own fashion. In fact Wanderlust is pretty much in the business of creating flimsy cardboard-cutout supporting characters just waiting for the stiff breeze of an easy joke to knock them down; they exist mostly to populate an absurdist wonderland that continually confuses and confounds George and Linda's normalcy.
But as Wain proved in his misunderstood cult favorite Wet Hot American Summer, a movie can succeed even when it's built entirely out of distorted caricatures — if enough of the jokes land, and if no one is safe from skewering. Here, that applies whether you're a racist boor who thinks SkyMall constitutes "good reading," a Wellbutrin-addled aspiring Real Housewife of Atlanta, a yuppie overspending on a West Village "microloft" because it's close to a great fair-trade coffee shop, or a nouveau hippie insisting that you live in an "intentional community" because "commune" has too many negative connotations. Wain's willingness to do anything for a laugh is a risk that pays off.
And when I say anything, I mean anything: This movie enjoys starting every laugh with a dropped jaw. Sure, the community's decision to leave a newborn's umbilical cord and placenta attached until they fall off naturally is a gag-inducing gag that goes too far. But Wain's brand of humor thrives on stepping over the line — and then sprinting a few hundred yards past it.
To wit: When the commune's free-love policy is suddenly about to become a reality for George, he practices a hilariously awkward streak of unsexy dirty talk in the mirror until the scene's discomfort becomes nearly too much to bear. And not satisfied with humiliating the character privately, Wain has him continue the verbal libido killing with his would-be partner, as if testing just how hard an audience can cringe through uncontrollable laughter.
There are few actors who could pull off a sequence like that with dignity intact, but Rudd has more than just a willingness to debase himself for the material; he has the ability to remain an affable, sympathetic everyman even while spewing a steady stream of off-key filth. His performances are too unassuming and effortless to garner the attention he deserves, but the expert timing on display here is further proof that he may have developed into the best comic actor of his generation.
He's surrounded here by similarly formidable talent, with many longstanding Wain associates from his old comedy troupe The State popping up throughout the cast; that ensemble's spinoff trio, Stella, also turns up in a group cameo as a crew of local TV newscasters. These are performers who know the rhythm and the tone of Wain's brand of humor inside and out — and they deliver it as confidently as a reunited band delving into their back catalog. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.