David Wain's Wanderlust is a film that takes a silly premise seemingly best suited for a TV sitcom and somehow makes it work. The film's success can be attributed to a splendid ensemble cast, strong use of improvisational humor, and an understanding of how to infuse characters with just enough depth so they don't become cartoons. It is one of the nice, early surprises of 2011.
George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) are married city dwellers who have hit a rough patch. His boring office job disappears when the company is shut down due to legal violations and her documentary about penguins with testicular cancer is met with the expected horrified reactions from TV executives. After a misadventure with George's obnoxious brother, they decide to try something new and live at a commune (or "intentional community" as the residents call it). The adjustment affects the couple differently and tests their relationship.
The film opens very strong with some solid scenes setting up the the situation for the main characters. There's a hilarious road trip montage where they alternate fighting and singing. Small supporting characters like a real estate agent (Linda Lavin) and HBO executives are given very funny personalities and their interactions with George and Linda are hilarious. George's brother (Ken Marino) serves an amusingly obnoxious contrast the the hippies at the commune.
Surprisingly, it's the scenes at the commune where the film has consistency issues. Wain sometimes has issues finding the right balance between broad humor and realism. There's no doubt some very funny material, including a mirror monologue by Paul Rudd that is one of the funniest things the actor has ever done. However, some of the situations are a bit over the top and the improvisational style leads to some scenes running longer than they should. It's still very funny material, just a bit more hit and miss than in the opening act.
The biggest problem in the film is a character named Seth (Justin Theroux). He has some hilarious lines about his concept of modern technology ("You know you can really get trapped in that web of beepers and Zenith televisions and Walkmens..."), but the problem comes when the movie uses him as a simple plot device to threaten George and Linda's relationship. The differences in how they adjusted to the commune lifestyle was enough of an obstacle for their marriage, so there was no need to create some cliched love triangle. This doesn't even get into the actions taken by Seth in the 3rd act, which I did not buy for one second.
Despite my complaints, Wanderlust remains funny enough to recommend. There are some very funny performances from the ensemble cast, including an underutilized Alan Alda as an old school hippie that founded the commune and Joe Lo Truglio as a nudist trying to write a political thriller with a shocking twist. Paul Rudd remains an asset to any movie he appears in and Jennifer Aniston reminds us once again that despite her penchant for picking terrible projects, she remains a very capable comic actress.