Hippies, free love and 1960s counterculture have always made incredibly easy targets for broad comedy, to the point at which few even attempt to push past lazy cliché. That proves to be the case yet again with Wanderlust, in which Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd play a married couple who impulsively decide to join a commune when their professional hopes in New York City are dashed beyond repair. And yet the laughs keep coming, sporadically but in side-splitting waves, thanks to the nimble wit of the large ensemble and a general willingness to milk improvisational anxiety for all it’s worth.
Truth is, Wanderlust is sharpest at its most urban, when establishing George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) as terminally deluded go-getters. Linda, still trying to find her career path at 40-something, shops her documentary about penguins with testicular cancer to horrified TV execs. Commitment-phobic George can’t bring himself to sign a lease on a West Village “microloft,” interjecting “Wait—” even as the movie’s title slams onscreen. (We never hear the final T.)
The movie’s high point, not counting the many joints to come, is a hilariously condensed montage of George and Linda’s drive from New York to Atlanta—a series of increasingly hostile squabbles punctuated by their shared passion for singing along to the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.” But we need a plot, so the pair eventually take up residence at an “intentional community” populated by a nudist (Joe Lo Truglio), a flower child (Lauren Ambrose), an angry ex-porn actor (Kathryn Hahn), a half-senile burnout (Alan Alda) and competing love interests in the form of Malin Akerman (for George) and Justin Theroux (for Linda).
Like director and co-writer David Wain’s previous films, which include Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models, Wanderlust is patchy as hell, riffing on pop-culture tropes that aren’t exactly farm-fresh. But when the cast finds an opportunity for random riffing, the results are often uproarious. In particular, Rudd’s self-motivational pre-sex monologue, delivered to his mirror reflection, is an instant classic. That you could airlift it into practically any other recent comedy with no ill effect typifies the film’s best gags, which are less about squares vs. freaks than about free-floating goofiness.