Wanderlust starts with an idea borrowed from Albert Brooks’ 1986 Lost in America–a yuppie couple respond to career setbacks by embarking on a cross-country journey that tests their mettle. Here, George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) leave their tiny, expensive Manhattan studio apartment and fall in among a collective of retrograde slackers in an off-the-grid Georgia commune called Elysium.
Where Brooks revealed Reagan-era acquisitiveness (climaxing symbolically in the existential absurdity of Las Vegas), Wanderlust drops metaphysics to oddly parody Clinton/Obama nostalgia about drugs-and-communes. It also seems like a retread of it director David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer; similarly fully of bland, self-amused in-jokes by inoffensive comic performers who enjoy each others company more than any audience will.
But then something unexpected happens: in only a couple of scenes where George visits his successful older brother Rick (Ken Marino) making money in the potty business and living miserably in Southern middle-class suburbia, the jokiness sharpens and Wanderlust becomes momentarily about something tangible–sibling rivalry, class delusions, marital tension, parental neglect, plus racism and sexism as spiritual fall-backs for pathetically disillusioned Americans.
All this is performed with incisive, pulse-raising conviction and psychological accuracy by Marino and Michaela who not only achieve Albert Brooks’ depth but also steal the movie from Rudd and Aniston. The best scenes in Wanderlust are actually grounded in middle-class quicksand, a specialty that Marino (who co-wrote the film with Wain) also displayed during a brief scene in Role Models and was the subject of the under-recognized Diggers.
Marino is a real find. In the margin of recent film comedies, he has staked out the psychology of the social strata that politicians like to call “the middle class” and he gets all up in the working-class truths of person-to-person struggles. Rick is a recognizably, memorably gross bossman, recalling the edgy sensitivity of gifted 70s revue comic Joe Bologna; particularly true to the ways men trap themselves in culturally assigned roles–the universal folly of adult males who are dissuaded from knowing themselves.
These perceptions occur only in the margins of Wanderlust because it is a Judd Apatow production–devoted to the weak panacea of TV-sitcom tradition that, these days, most people mistake for genuine comedy. That’s why Wanderlust skims the surface of Lost in America, glosses David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster and ultimately falls short of Minnelli’s The Long, Long Trailer.
Television has ruined the habit of self-examination that used to be the bonus of brave, gifted comic performers. No wonder critics took such inordinate offense to Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill; viewers in the Neilsen ratings millions now expect comedy to slake their prejudices and pet their class-denying egomania in between commercial breaks–or as part of their cable-TV subscriptions (a Wanderlust scene skewering HBO’s conceits is daring and hilarious). Too many comic performers resort to high-school antagonism and sarcasm, rather than confront their insecurities and account for unresolved anxieties. Thus, the decline of Saturday Night Live and the ascension of fake-political figures like Tina Fey and Jon Stewart who avoid self-examination by rising on the tide of Obama-era polarization–a new field of smug comedy that now might be called Occupied Territory.
In Wanderlust, Rudd and Aniston–better substitutes for Stewart and Fey (as well as Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd)–are adrift in post-hippie jokes; some are funny but most so petty that they keep losing the thread of class anxiety. Wanderlust might have been an ingenious satire of the Occupy Wall Street mentality where idealized Utopia clashes with the economic realities of self-interest–that’s surely the essence connecting George to his brother and the sexy, terminally nostalgic cult leader of the Elysium commune, Seth (Justin Theroux).
Revue comics formerly attempted to capture the idiosyncratic thoughts and language of their times–as in the personal, formerly “hip” Paul Mazursky comedies of the American Renaissance (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Blume in Love, Harry and Tonto, Next Stop Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman) which brought insight to domestic comedy. Ken Marino might have extended Mazursky’s insights had the marvelous Diggers been the hit it deserved to be. Instead, Marino sneaks-in his heartfelt satire of masculinity when and wherever he can (as in the best sketches of The Ten). Imagine how Marino could lift contemporary comedy out of its current smugness if he was allowed to escape the trend toward self-flattery that now traps his bankable colleague Paul Rudd. The pettiness of Wanderlust hides an instinctively accurate satire of contemporary smugness; it could have been the Zuccotti Park satire we need, trading Elysium for Psychotic Park.
Follow Armond White on Twitter 3xchair.