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'Wanderlust': A Zany Blast From The Communal Past

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In sophisticated comedy, what's funny is the tension between proper manners and the nasty or sexy subtext. Whereas in low comedy, there are no manners, and the nasty or sexy subtext is right there on the surface.

And then there's Wanderlust, in which the subtext is blasted through megaphones — the characters say so insanely much you want to scream. The satire is as broad as a battleship and equally bombarding. But it takes guts to do a comedy this big without gross-out slapstick, and the writers and the actors are all in.

Amid the zanies, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston have more or less the straight roles, but they're so innocent they're borderline crazy. They play George and Linda — he's in finance, she's an aspiring documentary filmmaker — who sink their money into an itty-bitty Manhattan apartment and go bust.

As they're en route to Atlanta to move in with George's crassly materialistic older brother and his suffering wife, their GPS sends them to the Elysium Bed and Breakfast — a hippie-dippy farming collective out of a time capsule. We're talking long-haired women in tie-dyed skirts, atop white horses beside tepees. They smoke a lot of dope and rap — not hip-hop rapping but, "Let's form a truth circle and, you know, rap" rapping.

You say it sounds like a bunch of stereotypes — and 40-year-old stereotypes? The defense concedes the point. It's not fresh terrain. But this tribe of hippies is also a tribe of marvelously inventive comic actors doing a fair amount of inspired improvisation and grooving on the mindset. Alan Alda plays the commune's last remaining founder, who rolls around in a wheelchair fulminating against capitalism and, in one drawn-out scene with Rudd and Aniston, explaining Elysium's policy in favor of free love.

Holding jokes a beat too long — two beats, three — that's a big technique of director David Wain, who co-wrote Wanderlust with Ken Marino, and it works because you get to watch Rudd writhe. Rudd is not the subtlest straight man in movies, but he might be the best. His deadpan is never dead — the body is twitching too madly, working to project easygoingness while his insides clench. And if Aniston remains a sitcom actress who overworks her mushy smile, that mushiness works beautifully for the impressionable, overeager Linda.

George and Linda flee back to Elysium after a nightmarish stay with George's brother, whereupon they learn how the place really works. Malin Ackerman plays the willowy blond Eva, who unceremoniously offers herself to George, who's still smarting after someone drives his car into the lake. More eager than Eva is Seth, the hairy hippie he-man played by Justin Theroux, who is mentally undressing Linda from the moment he lays eyes on her.

Theroux was barnstorming as a psychotic wizard in last year's maligned Your Highness, and he's just as inventive as Seth, homing in on the character's self-righteous cool and making beautiful music with the other actors, among them Kerri Kenney-Silver as a trippy nonstop talker and rubber-faced Kathryn Hahn as a woman whose feelers are way oversensitive to bad vibes.

Wanderlust has a bum last 10 minutes, a lame coda and inadvisable outtakes over the closing credits. The misses are, frankly, big — but not nearly so big that they bust your groove. The movie renews your faith in communal comedy.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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