It has long been my belief that Jennifer Aniston is, to put it delicately, not a natural comedienne. Her classic funnies like Office Space and, er, I’m struggling here, help me out would you. Bruce Almighty? That’s a terrible suggestion, why did I come to you for advice? My point is, Aniston’s presence in movie comedy always seems like a terrible imposition on her more hilarious co-stars.
Then again, you have Paul Rudd. A man whose every fibre is designed to make people laugh. Sometimes those fibres seem to be shouting a little too loud, but given the right balance there are few actors who can pull off sympathetic sarcasm with the same pizzazz. What he needs is a director who knows how to harness his most hilarious tendencies. Better yet, what if there were a man who had form in successfully pairing Rudd with comedic actors of a more questionable quality?
I have just the fellow. Enter Wanderlust writer/director David Wain. In 2008 he matched Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott to create Role Models – a pathos-infused farce that remains one of the most underrated comedies of recent times.
That’s a good pedigree, but as the tale of George (Rudd) and Linda’s (Aniston) financial crisis gets underway, there remains a nagging, Jennifer-shaped doubt. The duo stumble into their jokes as the opening scene unfolds and there are few signs of rapport.
The film is rescued as the couple find their way to a hippy commune full of charming new-age stereotypes. Each one inhabited by a member of the voluminous supporting cast. A whole bundle of Hollywood’s finest comedy character actors do a fine job of keeping the laughs rolling and although it seems unfair to pick out one name, Role Models veteran Ken Marino deserves particular praise for his turn as George’s obnoxious brother.
From this point the comedy comes thick and fast. Sure, only a couple of jokes really warrant proper belly laughs, but I would need a handful of hands to keep track of how many times a let out a solid chuckle.
The comedic tone is similar to Wain’s previous work, but not nearly as crude as Role Models. It leans more on a jumble of semi-knowing nonsense that is full of hippy mumbo jumbo and macho strutting.
It’s Wain’s unrelenting desire to make a mockery of everything that keeps the funnies flowing, but it also prevents his films from developing a coherent message. There’s a sort of comedy nihilism at work. Nothing is too sacred to be joked about or serious enough to warrant satire that bites. As a result, it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to come down on the side of the commune or the city, or, in fact, whether it really matters at all.
Wain is lucky to have Rudd. An actor with a gift for remaining unflappably likeable. In lieu of any real structure to the ethic of city or commune, it’s easiest to just go along with whatever he happens to be feeling at any particular moment.
I’m not suggesting that every film must deliver a fully formed moral missive, least of all broad comedy. But when you set up a narrative which so obviously pits traditional capitalism against a nature-loving existence it’s not unreasonable to expect some sort of conclusion.
“You’ve got to do what’s right for you,” says the crusty commune-owner as Wanderlust nears its climax, which is about as close as we get. Your location or philosophy doesn’t really matter, so long as you are contented. It’s very egocentric, very American, but even that idea is delivered with the barest of convictions. The real message appears to be, “You’ve got to do what’s right for you, but you can probably make things work wherever you are, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
Not likely to linger after you’ve picked your way across the sticky cineplex floor, but it’s a fabric that is just about thick enough to support 90 minutes of solid comedy.