The Judd Apatow school of R-rated comedy, perhaps unavoidably, has begun to produce some “C” students. Reuniting director David Wain with “Role Models” star and frequent Apatow player Paul Rudd, “Wanderlust” draws from a hodgepodge of movies where a couple is forced or inspired to reexamine their lives through exposure to colorful eccentrics — in this case, a commune called Elysium. Despite some amusing moments, everyone simply works too hard at providing rambunctious zaniness, until one grows painfully aware the inevitable outtakes reel will be superior to the movie. Box office could yield satisfactory returns, but it’s an uninspired role model.
At first, Wain (sharing writing credit with Ken Marino, who also co-stars) appears to be on familiar footing, with a “Lost in America”-like riff underlying the notion of a New York couple (Rudd, Jennifer Aniston) who question whether it’s possible to find bliss in less-stressful surroundings.
Like so many journeys of self-discovery, this one doesn’t begin happily. Rudd’s George abruptly loses his job, which makes hanging on to that “micro-loft” he and wife Linda have just purchased problematic. So with the recession as a backdrop, he accepts an invite from his loudmouth brother (Marino) to work for him in Atlanta.
Before arriving, however, they take the obligatory unplanned detour, and land in Elysium, home to nudists, free love and space cadets of different stripes. Their leader, Seth (Justin Theroux), bears a resemblance to Jesus and is slightly out-of-date when discussing technology, while his carefree followers — in what sounds like a nod to Occupy Wall Street but probably isn’t — express their approval not by clapping, but merely rubbing their fingers together.
Once the ground rules are established, though, all the pic can do is to keep trying to one-up itself in wacky moments, from George being denied privacy while sitting on the toilet to testing the free-love parameters, which could land him an enviable romp with Eva (Malin Akerman).
Unfortunately, because the story so quickly whisks the central couple away from home and into these peculiar environs, they come across as only marginally less bizarre than those around them, and thus a poor point of reference.
Moreover, scenes meant to explore George and Linda’s choices, potential regrets and varying degrees of willingness to embrace the more challenging sociological questions raised by this counterculture community are overwhelmed by a broad tone that makes the softer exchanges feel like an anomaly. That’s especially true in the last third or so, when the movie goes from tolerably silly to nearly unraveling.
Whatever Elysium means to the slightly confused Linda, who has struggled to find direction, for Aniston, it’s a turn down a dead-end road she’s traveled too many times before. Rudd is a more natural clown (a slow-building sequence involving him and a mirror certainly demonstrates as much), but he’s poorly served by a vehicle that plays more like a protracted sitcom pilot than anything else. Then again, at least a series would offer a means to better explore the ancillary players, from the elderly founder (Alan Alda) to the pregnant Earth goddess (Lauren Ambrose) to the nude would-be novelist (Joe Lo Truglio).
As is, “Wanderlust” — technically sound but undistinguished — conjures bemused smiles early on, anyway, but too rarely delivers genuine laughs. And when it’s finally over, there’s scant incentive even to rub one’s fingers together.