Though major studios used to crank them out by the truckload, today the movie musical is a fairly infrequent occurrence — not just because they’re commercially risky but because the genre itself is an inherently ambitious undertaking. Ranging from “Once” to Damien Chazelle’s pre-“La La Land” romance “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” there have been some moderately successful attempts at making indie musicals on a micro-budget, but the question still lingers of whether audiences are willing to accept a modern movie in which people sing out their emotions.
In a risky departure from a résumé otherwise dominated by broad comedy (writing “Date Night” and a “Shrek” sequel, directing second unit on several Farrelly Brothers projects), Josh Klausner gives it a stab with “Wanderland.” Different though it may be from his 1999 debut “The 4th Floor” — a quasi-horror thriller with surreal touches — this oddball effort is more an exercise in low-key quirkiness set in a slightly alternative universe where everything but our protagonist is a little “off.”
Whereas “Floor” was just weird enough to hold our interest, “Wanderland” struggles to engage. The model this time is Scorsese’s “After Hours” and other absurdist dark-night-of-the-soul comedies in which our hapless hero is forced through a series of strange encounters. Yet real, inspired strangeness — not to mention laughs, and an actual point — prove elusive here, while the musical elements feel so inessential they might be excised entirely without notable loss. “Wanderland” deserves credit for trying something different. But such an effort shouldn’t end up so innocuous and inconsequential.
Alex (Tate Ellington, whose pleasing expressiveness is a plus, particularly given his character’s blank-slate conception) is a New Yorker living a boring, lonely existence. Lacking anything better to do, he accepts an apparent stranger’s online offer to use her Long Island house in an “enchanted forest” for the weekend.
Upon arriving, he finds he has the handsome, expansive place all to himself, but no cell phone signal, so he drives to the beach in search of one. There, he encounters a friendly British woman (Tara Summers) who invites him to a party, though he’s too shy to accept.
Then his car conks out, leaving him to hoof it for assistance. He lands on the farmhouse doorstep of a seemingly randy older woman (Victoria Clark) whom he flees, now pants-less (which means he’s now lost the address of the place he’s staying).
As dusk turns to night and night to dawn, his further circuitous adventures encompass random interactions with an erudite elderly man (Harris Yulin); a surfer-dude-type musician (Jack Dishel) who gets even spacier after quaffing some psychedelic punch; a surly ice cream server (Drew Powell) and his overprotective mum (Marceline Hugot); a houseful of hostile apparent radical-feminist Wiccans; a yachting couple (Ronald Guttman, Wendy Makkena); and so forth.
Unfortunately, whenever a character seems on the verge of doing or becoming something more than simply quirky, Alex moves on to the next under-cooked encounter. Several (but not all) of these figures sing songs, though no more meaningfully than an average person crooning along with the radio. The staging of these musical interludes comes across so casual that the eight original songs by Klausner, Wendy Parr, and Atarah Valentine barely make an impact, merely digressing from the already-meandering action, rather than actually heightening or commenting on it.
The only time a bigger arrangement and production fuss is expended on a tune is when a superstar podiatrist (Douglas Hodge) punches out “Shooting Stars” with a jazz band at his own upscale house party. Hodge, one of several performers here better known for stage work, is also the only cast member willing or allowed to display enough panache that his eccentricity seems a funny end in itself — not just a half-baked tease toward some punchline that never arrives. It’s typical of “Wanderlust’s” tepidly disappointing humor that at one point Alex is directed to find some possibly scary “bikers,” only they turn out to be not-so-scary bicyclists. (Yep, that’s the whole joke.)
Though Brett Jutkiewicz’s widescreen lensing looks good, it’s not enough to distinguish this droll endeavor. At the fade out, we’re meant to understand that Alex’s mildly wild night has had some cathartic effect on him. Maybe he’ll loosen up a bit now, or at least stare at his phone less. But reaching this point is a little like getting one of those “light touch” massages where you’re still waiting for the experience to begin when you’re told it’s over.
Toward the end, a “biker” (Valentine) sings Modern English’s 1982 hit “I Melt With You,” one of a half-dozen non-original songs included here as well. But who’s melted, and why? “Wanderlust” seems desirous of igniting our emotions, but they stubbornly remain at room temperature throughout. It’s bewildering that the most propulsive music here is saved for the closing credits, when that energy — any energy — was greatly needed throughout.