[24 February 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“No way in hell,” announces HBO executive Marcy (Zandy Hartig), “We’re going to have to pass.” She’s responding to a documentary she’s just stopped watching. More precisely, she’s responding to the filmmaker, Linda (Jennifer Aniston), who is arguing that the focus on penguins dying of testicular cancer is worthy. “The piece is depressing,” says Marcy, her eager assistant echoing her every sigh and eye-roll, even as Linda persists, explaining what she thinks she’s done. “To be perfectly frank,” Marcy sums up, “Fuck the penguins.”
It’s not a terrible start for Wanderlust. At least it sets up the basic attitude in David Wain’s follow-up to Role Models, which is pretty much like the one in Role Models, namely, snarky. Confronted with a world that doesn’t get her, Linda is initially confused and angry, and takes at least some of her frustration out on her husband George, who’s played by Paul Rudd, who played pretty much the same role opposite Seann William Scott in… you guessed it, Role Models. George is another child-man, the sort popped out of the Apatow factory, also believing the world doesn’t get him—an idea reinforced when, at the same moment Linda’s penguins doc is being trashed, he gets “wink-point-shit-canned” from his investment banking job.
Because, per formula, George and Linda are on a path to self-understanding and enlightenment, they also need to lose their home, a micro-loft they’ve just purchased in the West Village. Thus they’re on the road, literally, driving to Atlanta where George’s brother Rick (Ken Marino) promises him work at his porta-potty company. En route, they run into Elysium, a commune headed by self-loving Seth (Justin Theroux). After just one night exposed to might weed and didgeridoos, the frantic couple is more than a little impressed by Seth’s crew of big-embracing, produce-growing, peasant-smock-wearing “hippies.”
George and Linda’s first impression is reinforced when they spend a couple of days with Rick and his miserable wife (Michaela Watkins), who starts drinking margaritas mid-afternoon and doesn’t quite pretend she doesn’t know he’s sleeping around. Listening to them snipe at each other and, especially, listening to Rick engage in painfully juvenile odes to his “dick,” the couple decides to go back to Elysium. Here they learn—surprise!—that the collective is not quite so hunky dory as they seemed, that they are controlling and anxious and grumpy, that they manipulate one another, that they have troubled, not so worked-out pasts.
Still, the film spends some time pointing out their individual eccentricities, as each might embody a lesson for Linda and/or George. Thus the forgetful commune property owner Carvin (Alan Alda) seems an example of too much acid (read: choice, experimentation, nonconformity) as a youngster, nudist-winemaker-novelist Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio) acts out the stunting effects of navel-gazing, and blond earth goddess Eva (Malin Akerman) seduces as George’s ideal free-love-object. In a series of set pieces—the introduction to the no-doors policy, the truth circle, the gardening montages, even the “I can help with the constipation” embarrassment—George and Linda find that all acolytes preach the gospel of Seth, that is, he’s the boss.
Seth’s self-righteous self-presentation is the primary plot device, the lesson to be learned and the fraud to be exposed. As such, he first worries Linda (who thinks he’s corny) and George (who’s jealous), but soon enough they’re using Seth in order to bait one another: Linda likes his guitar-playing and George likes his diktat of free love, at least as George fantasizes about Eva. George and Linda go back and forth on who’s a believer and who’s a crass materialist, who wants a door on the bathroom and who wants to be reassured emotionally, but the movie doesn’t veer from its track, the one grinding you into submission regarding that lesson to be learned.
It’s possible to read the formula here as ironic, like the formula in Role Models or any other movie produced or directed or breathed on by Joel Apatow. But that suggests that such irony in itself constitutes a pass, an agreement between film and viewers, that you all know what the trite point is, so now you can say this version is at least “self-aware” or maybe even “knowing.” But irony in this context is not original or insightful: it’s only telling you what you already know. The joke is its own end in this formula, even if you might pretend that everyone getting along at the end demonstrates a moral. When Rick’s wife tells him off or Linda tells off Seth or Paul proclaims his deep and abiding love for Linda, you’re not surprised or convinced. To be frank, fuck the penguins.