Funny ideas and a funny cast don’t always make for a funny movie. Today’s case in point, Wanderlust (2012). Directed by David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) with a script by Wain and Ken Marino (Party Down as an actor, Role Models as a writer), the film stars Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. That is not a bad group of people to be working on a project, and the idea, a New York City couple is forced to ditch city life and find themselves in a commune in Georgia, is potentially amusing as well. However, with the exception of a few jokes, Wanderlust is a misfire.
The film doesn’t start out that way, in fact, it opens with a good deal of promise. It all begins with George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) worrying over buying an ultra-small, but in a hip neighborhood, NYC apartment. It is an agonizing decision with NY being a pricey real estate market, but the two opt to purchase only to have George lose his job soon after. With Linda being less than successful in her career, the two find themselves with little choice but to leave Manhattan and join George’s brother, Rick (Marino), in Georgia where Rick has offered George a job at his company.
This all requires some suspension of disbelief, but that’s okay, movies generally require suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t really matter that George doesn’t seem to look for a new job all that hard before they leave or that Linda won’t actually buckle down and serve fries rather than lose the apartment she loves. It also doesn’t, on the face of it, matter that George and Linda’s two day road trip to Georgia feels like a week or two (did no one look at a map?) and that when they’re finally nearly at Rick’s place—they’re already in Georgia—George and Linda pull over for the night at a bed and breakfast.
It is a lot of suspension of disbelief to be sure, but if none of that happens George and Linda don’t meet the folks at Elysium, the bed and breakfast they stop at, and if that doesn’t happen they can’t end up deciding to live there themselves once Rick and his job prove distasteful. And then there’s no movie. Or something like that. There are probably other ways to introduce George and Linda to Elysium, ways that work better, but this one isn’t the worst possible. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t really make one care about what happens next.
Elysium, this ridiculous commune, is, from the outset, set up as a place where one can’t imagine either of these two people would actually like spending a lot of time. It is exact sort of place where they might enjoy themselves for a long weekend, but not they kind of place they’d ever want to really live.
However, again, without George and Linda going to live at Elysium, there’s no movie; without them encountering the wacky characters at Elysium, there is no movie. And, where the movie mostly succeeds, is with its creation of the wacky characters at Elysium. First, there’s the nudist, Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio); then there’s the old half-senile guy who owns the house, Carvin (Alan Alda); and there’s the attractive free love woman, Eva (Malin Akerman). The list continues, but you get the point. They’re eclectic and, for lack of a better term, “crunchy.”
Where the cast of oddballs most needs to succeed though is with the guy who actually runs the commune, Seth (Justin Theroux), and there it fails spectacularly. Nearly every piece of Seth’s character is telegraphed – he’s the guy who seems cool and has been living outside of society for so long he has no clue about pop culture but who would trade it all in and sell George down the river for the opportunity to jump Linda. And that doesn’t work. From the moment he first appears on screen, it is clear that there will eventually be tension between George and Seth over Linda and that rather than doing anything truly interesting with the folks at Elysium, the film is going to degenerate into a battle for Linda’s heart. Wanderlust isn’t a good movie to that point, but once it gets there, the wheels really come off.
The basic problem is that the movie really just seems to just want to ask the question “what if two New Yorkers were forced to live in a hippie commune” and then doesn’t have any sort of an interesting answer. Instead, it throws a bunch of stuff up against the wall—they could have problems with free love, there could be an evil developer, the guy in charge could be skeazy—to see what sticks (none of it). The more interesting movie is the one not made – what would have happened if George had stayed with Rick and Rick’s drunk, depressed wife? How could he and Linda have adjusted to that different, but real, life?
By trying to ask that question, Wanderlust could still have told a fish out of water story but could have been one based in reality and which could have examined our world and they way we live. It very much starts to do that with its look at NYC and NYC living, but Wain and Marino have little to say about the commune except that it’s populated with weirdos and that isn’t enough on which to hang a movie. Consequently, once Elysium becomes more than a single night stop on the road, the movie—just like George and Linda—loses its way.
Okay, that is a little bit of a weird statement because it’s clear that going to Elysium is the whole point of the film, but it remains the truth. Elysium is funny as a diversion, not a film. It would be funny to see how a stay at Elysium affects George and Linda when they’re back in reality, not when they’re there at the commune. Outside of creating interesting characters, the film seems to have no idea what to do with the people at the commune and consequently everything there is boring (and why I feel as though the real movie lies elsewhere).
The new Blu-ray release is loaded with special features, none of which quite make up for the film itself. Outside of a digital copy and a DVD, the Blu-ray also sports a “bizarro” cut of the film which has different jokes throughout (some of which are more funny and some less, depending on your point of view). There is also a gag reel, a line-o-rama (it seems as though a decent amount of the film was done in an improv style), a commentary track, a fake piece on Joe Lo Truglio’s issues wearing a prosthetic bit of male genitalia, Jordan Peele pretending to be Barack Obama, an episode of web series Wainy Days, and a more typical behind the scenes piece. Much like the film itself, the extras have that feel of offering a ton of stuff none of which seems horribly well thought out in an effort to, hopefully, make someone laugh at some point.
Where the release is nearly a complete success is with its presentation. Whatever other problems the Elysium community may have, the grounds they own are completely beautiful and that shines through here. The greenery of their land is outstanding and lovely to look at. There are a number of dark scenes but nothing, not even the nudist, is lost in shadow. Detail is abundant. There are, in short, no complaints to have about the film’s look. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is not quite as good. There are certainly some atmospheric noises in the surrounds to help put the viewer in both Elysium and New York City, but as one would expect for a comedy, most of the sound comes from the front channels and is all about the dialogue (would that it were funnier).
In the final summation, Wanderlust, even with its basic fish out of water format and its band of eccentrics and kooks and little else plot-wise could have been a wild success. However, while it seems as those working on the film had a great deal of fun and while they’re all clearly talented individuals, the jokes simply end up not being funny. The movie will certainly strike a chord with some folks, but many will simply end up wondering how exactly this group of funny people made a movie that’s just so blah. By the time the credits roll you’ll end up wondering where the funny went because it’s clearly there and yet it doesn’t make it up onto the screen.