by Tony Dayoub
When recent coverage of the Judd Apatow/David Wain comedy Wanderlust turned to the age-old subject of whether Jennifer Aniston had gone topless in the movie, I was sure the comedy was a dud. After all, last time that subject came up, it turned out to be a last ditch publicity stunt to drum up a larger audience for Aniston's truly witless Horrible Bosses. This kind of fruitless bait-and-switch tactic (she keeps her shirt on in both films) is usually good for only a short-term bump; disappointed pervs start slamming a movie that much harder after failing to score a look at the actress's boobs. And for the more discerning of us, reliance on such promotions are a tip-off that a bad movie is desperate for attention, any kind of attention. Before Wanderlust started, one woman sitting behind me commented to her prudish friend, "I hope you're prepared for this. I hear it's got lots of nudity," a distracting disclaimer that's never encouraging. Happily, I can report that, though she was right, the ample nudity in Wanderlust is rightly played for laughs, and any temptation to shock audiences into submitting to the movie's charms by way of Aniston's breasts are largely ignored.
Instead, Wanderlust stays focused on the dynamic between its married protagonists, George (Paul Rudd) and Linda Gergenblatt (Aniston), two materialistic Manhattanites who are forced to move to Atlanta after George loses his job. After a brief time working for (and staying with) George's overbearing brother and his passive self-deluded wife (a sort of worst case-scenario version of George and Linda, played by the film's co-writer Ken Marino and Michaela Watkins, formerly of Saturday Night Live), George and Linda decide to throw their lot in with an "intentional community" of hippies they stayed with for one night on their way down from New York. The odd bunch includes a young pregnant couple who brag about their interracial relationship (Lauren Ambrose, Jordan Peele), a "recovering" porn star (Kathryn Hahn), a nudist writing a suspense novel (Joe Lo Truglio), the addled founder of the commune (Alan Alda) and the group's leader, Seth (Justin Theroux), who despite promoting an adherence to free love, aims to steal Linda away all for himself.
One of Wanderlust's many virtues is its propensity for offering Rudd's George the opportunity to fulfill many of his (typically male) fantasies: an escape from the humdrum routine of his office career, a chance to find his spiritual side in the outdoors and best of all, a fling with a gorgeous hippy-chick (played by the luminous Malin Akerman) within the bounds of the free-loving society promoted by the commune's denizens. The lead-up to his rendezvous with Akerman's appropriately named Eva sets up one of Wanderlust's funniest gags, a scene in which Rudd looks into a mirror, improvising a riff made up of all the seductive come-ons George plans to lay on Eva. Each successive pick-up line is simultaneously funnier and more disturbing than the last, having the unintended effect of psyching George out of successfully bedding Eva. The idea that common male fantasies usually end up having undesired consequences aligns Wanderlust with other comedies produced by Apatow, such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, or Knocked Up.
Wanderlust, though, inverts expectations associated with Apatow's formula fairly early. George sees through the commune's shallow, wish-fulfilling aspect not to long after he catches on to Seth's manipulative charm. As intensely laid back and spiritual as Theroux plays Seth, he allows viewers to detect his utter cluelessness every time he waxes rhapsodic on some anachronism as if it were still popular in the present-day (the funniest one being the The Arsenio Hall Show). George and Seth's competition over Linda leads to a reversal in which the usually uptight Aniston plays the character who ends up going all in on the fantasy of escapism offered by the commune. Linda willingly succumbs to the effects of a hallucinogen during a brilliantly realized scene in which the commune shares their secrets in a "truth circle." The subsequent kaleidoscopic setpiece of psychedelia that follows is visually imaginative, hilarious and not a little bit perturbing, ending up with Linda on a tree branch telling George she believes she can fly. She jumps and falls right into the waiting arms of Seth. (Theroux is Aniston's real-life boyfriend.)
Wanderlust then becomes a sly look at George and Linda's relationship, gingerly exploring how the two relate to each other in a new environment where the materialistic goals they once had no longer seem to matter. Wain and Marino sharply satirize how materialism sneaks into even the most conscious couple's lives, taking astute potshots at New York real estate, life in Atlanta's 'burbs and even the more ridiculous practices of what at first looks like a humble, spiritual alternative, the hypocritical commune itself. Funnier and more self-aware than it looks, Wanderlust is an amusing trifle that reflects the malaise affecting marriages in the recession era. And it shouldn't need a naked Aniston to make itself known.