Film review: Wanderlust

Each year, I make a New Year’s resolution to spend more time writing movie reviews, and each year I end up letting it slide.  This week I decided that I would start seeing a new movie each week as a way to engage more on the entertainment industry, after having a conversation over a week ago with Steven Crowder in which he challenged me to follow through.  Normally, I only go to see movies I’m sure I’ll enjoy; if I start going each week, I’m forced to see movies I might otherwise miss and have an opportunity to discover some gems in the rough.

That, unfortunately, does not describe Wanderlust, which was released last Friday.  I chose this Judd Apatow-produced film only because the theater nearby had just two choices for films released this weekend, The Lorax and Project X, neither of which I wanted to see.  The Lorax is an adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book on conservation that’s preachy enough in its short form, and the thought of sitting through a 90-minute padded-out lecture didn’t appeal to me at all; Project X looks like Can’t Hardly Wait meets The Hangover and was even less appealingThe problem with starting this new plan in March is that this season is a graveyard for film releases, and the pickings will be mighty, mighty thin.

I had some hope for Wanderlust, since Apatow’s films are usually offbeat, quirky, original, and make emotional connections unexpectedly.  That was especially true of The Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and to a lesser extent with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek.  In this film, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play George and Linda, a couple who hit a streak of bad luck in New York and end up trekking to Georgia to stay with George’s brother Rick.  On the way, they stay overnight at a commune, and when Rick turns into a tyrant given to inappropriate commentary of all kinds, George and Linda try living at the commune to escape the shipwreck of their lives.

There may be plenty of comedic possibilities to explore, but Wanderlust mostly goes for the cheap laughs and the obvious plot twists.  Some of the best laughs come in the beginning, especially in a sequence where Linda unsuccessfully pitches a depressing nature documentary to HBO.  At a certain point, though, what should have been funny became more creepy than humorous, and it generates more eye rolls than laughs.  What works in other Apatow films is that the characters may do oddball things, but their basic humanity is evident.  In this case, most of the characters feel like archetypes for the sole purpose of being foils in  mean-spirited ways rather than showing any affection for them.  It’s hard to connect to any of the characters, even George and Linda, thanks to the cardboard cutout setups of the film.

The cast is solid and does as well as they can with the material, and there is plenty of hippie bashing, some of it humorous.  Rudd and Aniston make their best efforts and do have some good moments together on screen.  Alan Alda plays the co-founder of the commune, er, “intentional community,” and lends a bit more humanity to the proceedings. Justin Theroux nails the role of the charismatic and cheesy commune leader Seth.  The always-luminous Malin Akerman (Watchmen, 27 Dresses) feels more like a token free-love babe, but Lauren Ambrose manages to get above the material to project a vulnerable and slightly loopy Earth Mother (almost literally) in a smaller role.

There is some fun to be had with Wanderlust, and it wasn’t a bad movie at all — just a little disappointing, given Apatow’s track record.  Wanderlust might work best as a Netflix instant queue choice or a premium-channel opportunity.  Stick with Act of Valor and hope that next weekend will bring something a little more entertaining.  Due to subject matter, it’s definitely not appropriate for children or teens;  it gets an R rating for graphic nudity (full frontals of both men and women), drug references, and language.

Note: I plan to get feedback from Twitter followers each weekend in choosing the films to review, so be sure to follow me.

Update: My comments made it sound as though Apatow directed the film; he was one of the producers.  I’ve edited that first mention to clarify, and thanks to Joana in the comments for pointing out my ambiguity.

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