The premise for David Wain’s disappointing, Judd Apatow-produced comedy Wanderlust recalls the ingenious plot of Albert Brooks’ Lost In America, a Reagan-era classic in which Brooks’ uptight big-city neurotic decides to drop out of the rat race after getting passed up for a big promotion. But where the messiness of real life prevents Brooks and wife Julie Hagerty from achieving his dream of touching Indians and channeling their inner Wavy Gravys, Wanderlust’s equally passed-over and unemployed Paul Rudd actually gets to drop out, smoke pot, and exchanges ideas, vibes, and much more with groovy, clothing-averse hippie chicks and dudes. He lacks the fervor, however, of dilettantish wife Jennifer Aniston, who throws herself into commune life with the same misguided vigor she previously applied to an endless series of quickly discarded life choices, aspirations, and professions.
Rudd and Aniston costar as ambitious New Yorkers who have barely finished signing a mortgage for a Manhattan “micro-loft” (i.e. a studio apartment) when Rudd loses his job. The couple slinks down to suburban Atlanta to stay with his asshole brother (Ken Marino, who co-wrote the script with Wain) and his brother’s depressed, detached wife (Michaela Watkins). Together, Marino and Watkins offer the worst possible advertisement for bourgeois living, suburbia, and playing by society’s rules. Disgusted, Rudd and Aniston escape to a utopian commune where free love rules, clothing is optional, drugs are everywhere, and the unofficial leader (Justin Theroux) has designs on Aniston. At first, Rudd and Aniston are exhilarated by their freedom and uninhibited new friends, but dropping out brings its own set of problems.
If Wanderlust’s plot recalls Lost In America, at least in the promising early going, its army of far-out hippie cartoons seems to belong to an earlier vintage of straights-meet-the-counterculture fare like Joe, Save The Tiger, Skidoo, and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, films that explore what happens when establishment figures collide with the titanic forces of free-love-espousing hippie nymphets and the mind-clouding effects of hallucinogens and marijuana. Decades have passed since then, but Wanderlust’s broadly drawn space cadets wouldn’t feel out of place in Skidoo or Toklas; they’re the same overly familiar stereotypes filmmakers mined for cheap laughs or timely drama ages ago, complete with comical nudity and trippy hallucinogenic freakouts.
The effortlessly charming Rudd—who is never funnier here than when trying to psych himself up for a tryst with commune-dweller Malin Akerman with a series of increasingly preposterous voices—and an attractive, game supporting cast nearly sell the warmed-over material. But Wanderlust loses its daffy charm whenever it attends to the needs of an arbitrary plot that requires one third of the film’s central love triangle to turn into a raging asshole (or at least unleash the asshole lurking underneath his hippie sex-messiah exterior) in order to clear up any lingering ambiguity. Wanderlust’s premise affords it an opportunity to comment insightfully on antithetical but flawed conceptions of the American dream, but any aspirations to satire or social commentary get lost in the film’s all-too-easy comedy.