Friday, February 24, 2012

Wanderlust: Yet another limp sex farce

Wanderlust (2012) • View trailer
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for sexual content, profanity, drug use and full nudity
By Derrick Bang

I decided, years ago, that American filmmakers simply don’t understand how to make a proper sex comedy. Instead of funny and erotic, the results invariably are embarrassing and smutty.

George (Paul Rudd) can't help feeling aroused when resident sexpot Eva (Malin
Akerman, right) expresses more than casual interest in him. Unfortunately,
George's wife Linda (Jennifer Aniston) finds the dynamic amusing for entirely
different reasons. On the other hand, this is a free-love commune, so who knows
what might happen?
I’m not talking about romantic comedies — which Hollywood does quite well — or the intentionally crass naked teenager romps, such as (depending on your age) Porky’s, American Pie or their myriad clones. For the most part, the latter are designed to be young male wish-fulfillment fantasies: a rather specific and narrow niche.

No, I mean true sex comedies, delivered so well by French cinema: deliciously erotic and genuinely hilarious films in the vein of, say, Cote d’Azur, French Twist, L’Auberge Espagnole, The Valet, The Closet, The Girl from Monaco, Priceless and many, many others going back to classics such as, yes, La Cage aux Folles.

As has been said many times, the French simply have that magic je ne sais quoi, when it comes to bedroom farce. Hollywood ... not so much.

And Wanderlust isn’t about to reverse that trend.

In fairness, director David Wain’s fish-out-of-water saga — co-written with Ken Marino — shows mild promise in the first act. Uptight Manhattanites George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Anniston), struggling to purchase their first slice of New York real estate — a hopelessly overpriced West Village “micro-loft” — see the dream fall apart when both become unemployed.

With no other options, they stuff all their worldly possessions into a car and head to Atlanta, where George’s brother Rick (Ken Marino) and his wife, Marissa (Michaela Watkins), have offered to take them in. This road trip is a hilarious montage of pent-up frustration, simmering hostility and tearful regret: a memorable drive from hell that’ll feel familiar to anybody who recalls a trip under similarly stressed conditions.

If the rest of Wain’s film were up to this one-minute sequence, he’d have comedy gold on his hands.

Highway fatigue prompts a desperate search for overnight lodging; George and Linda wind up in the guest quarters at Elysium, a rural commune populated by colorful free spirits who make our protagonists feel quite welcome. A marijuana-laced evening proves refreshingly comfortable in the company of Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio), a nudist winemaker and would-be novelist; Kathy (Kerri Kenney-Silver), a slightly dreamy chatterbox with the slowest takes in movie history; Almond (Lauren Ambrose) and Rodney (Jordan Peele), a couple sharing the excitement of their first pregnancy; Karen (Kathryn Hahn), a former porn star turned jam maker; Eva (Malin Akerman), the resident sex goddess; Carvin (Alan Alda), the troupe’s drop-out founder; and Seth (Justin Theroux), the alpha male and quasi-spiritual leader.

Here, too, the dynamic is reasonably amusing, as the story plays up the contrast between George and Linda’s anxious, city-dwelling tics and their hosts’ laid-back serenity. Wayne, in particular, is a hoot ... and Lo Truglio isn’t the slightest bit shy about casually displaying his dangly bits.

But “adult” responsibilities prompt George and Linda to hit the road the next day; after all, Rick and Marissa are expecting them. And this is when Wain loses control of his thus-far promising premise, and succumbs to a vulgar dark side.

Marino plays Ken as a crass, condescending jerk who — it turns out — made his fortune with porta-potties: Cue the usual litany of verbal and visual poo-poo jokes. Marissa self-defensively flees her husband’s verbal abuse with all-day cocktail hours; her alcohol-fueled memory loss is played for laughs but feels only pathetic.

Indeed, nothing about Ken and Marissa is funny. Marino’s line readings are forced and insincere, as if even he can’t believe the deliberately offensive dialogue assigned his character. Watkins’ Marissa is simply a downer.

George and Linda wisely flee, impulsively deciding that Elysium’s free-spirited lifestyle is a far better way to exist. After all, money can’t buy happiness, careers bring only stress, and material possessions simply get in the way. Let’s give it two weeks, George suggests, and see what happens.

Ah, but becoming part of the tribe proves vastly different than being honored visitors. Elysium doesn’t believe in doors — not even for bathrooms — and their new permanent quarters are far smaller than the sumptuous guest bedroom. The social dynamic shifts as well, thanks to the dangers of “truth circles” and the dawning realization that Seth is a sly, patronizing control freak.

Karen, alternatively, turns out to possess a hair-trigger temper, an affectation Hahn oversells rather aggressively. Again: not funny.

Then there’s the matter of the free love. Eva expresses interest in George, which sends him into a panic; Seth can’t wait to boink Linda. Surprisingly — given that it’s such an obvious and anticipated plot point — Wain handles this sexual dance quite clumsily. Perhaps because of Aniston’s star wattage and image, we never even see what happens between Linda and Seth; it feels as if an entire scene was dropped onto the cutting-room floor.

As for the ghastly effort George makes to talk himself into sliding between the sheets with Eva, the less said the better. Indeed, I wish Rudd had said much less; his increasingly coarse monologue — as George speaks to his mirrored reflection — goes on and on and on and on, as if Wain expects to gain laughter by wearing us down.

Not in this lifetime.

And this may be one of the key reasons why Hollywood sex farces never succeed: They’re often populated by big-name stars, who bring their own baggage and expectations. No matter how much a premise might demand as much, Anniston and Rudd ain’t gonna remove their clothes; that makes them miscast in a film of this nature, no matter what their other talents.

French actors and actresses, in great contrast, are far more casual about such things; if a script calls for nudity in order to sell a comedic scene, so much the better.

Aniston has some good moments, starting with Linda’s failed pitch in the story’s first act, as she tries to sell a documentary to HBO. Aniston also manages mild carnality at times, but — oddly — she never gets as provocatively earthy as she was when playing the oversexed dentist in last summer’s Horrible Bosses.

Rudd once again plays a whiny, put-upon, cookie-cutter nebbish: the same reading he gives in just about every film he makes. He has zero range as an actor, and neither he nor his characters show any signs of depth or life. George, in this film, is no different.

Akerman, although convincing as an earthy object of sexual desire, has been stuck with this role in a succession of equally bad comedies, from 2007’s ill-advised remake of The Heartbreak Kid to 2009’s Couples Retreat. And not one of these misfires packs anywhere near the sexual heat of her performance in Watchmen; now, that is an erotic role.

Wanderlust tosses in a rather pointless subplot involving a development consortium that intends to raze Elysium in order to build a huge casino; Carvin could stop the project in a heartbeat, if only he could find the original land deed ... but he concealed it far too many acid trips ago.

When Linda impulsively stages a rather unusual protest for the camera crew of an Atlanta TV station’s morning talk show, that triggers some inappropriate chatter between the show’s three male co-hosts, at the expense of their female colleague: again, dialogue that’s far more strained and desperate than amusing.

I shouldn’t be surprised; Wain’s résumé is highlighted by maladroit, tasteless junk such as Role Models, The Ten and Wet Hot American Summer (the latter’s title revealing everything you need to know about that one). Wanderlust may be a rung above those earlier efforts, but it’s a mighty short ladder.

It’ll play two weeks in wide release and then be forgotten. Forever, if we’re lucky.

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