Wanderlust: The Rise of the Counter-Countercultural Comedy

You don’t generally go to bawdy R-rated comedies stuffed with drug abuse, profanity and nudity for political messages, especially conservative ones. So when such a movie comes along and it unashamedly makes the case for monogamy, stability and private property over collectivist ideals, you should pay attention.

The movie is a Jennifer Aniston-Paul Rudd comedy produced by Judd Apatow called Wanderlust. The pair play a married couple who try to find fulfilling work in Manhattan but can’t afford it. (She is a classic artsy but barely employed type who is working on a documentary about penguins with testicular cancer.) George (Rudd) loses his finance job, so he swallows hard and accepts an offer to stay with his well-off but obnoxious brother (Ken Marino) in Atlanta. George and Linda (Aniston) pile their possessions into their tiny car and head South. Along the way, they pull over at what they think is going to be a bed and breakfast, but the establishment turns out to be a hippie free-love commune full of wacky characters such as a bald and chubby little man whose salient characteristics are that he is writing a novel that seems destined never to be finished, he’s always carrying a glass of red wine and he’s always naked.

Having stayed the night at this strange but friendly place, they move on to George’s brother Rick’s house, where things quickly turn unbearable. It turns out Rick’s fortune is in portable toilets, and his personality is as cuddly as his job. He keeps making bad dirty jokes, calling his brother a loser who doesn’t understand the importance of hard work and making his wife (Michaela Watkins) so bored and alienated that she drinks margaritas all day.  Lost for a place to go, George and Linda decide that they at least feel loved at the commune. They move in with the hippies and try to fit in with the ethos of the place, which is led by a furry but charismatic dude named Seth (Justin Theroux) and was co-founded by a crusty old survivor (Alan Alda) of the Flower Power generation.

The expected clash of yuppies and hippies leads to some hilarious moments (as well as some jokes that are repeated too often), but it’s the way the movie allows disillusionment to settle in on George and Linda that gives it meaning. The commune renounces meat eating, capitalism, materialism and individualism while celebrating love, egalitarianism, honesty, openness and drug “experiments.” Each of the latter ideas is gradually shown to be unworkable and flawed as the advantages of the former come to light. For instance, a scene in which the Theroux character commands everyone to sit in a circle and be absolutely forthright with each other leads to bad blood between George and Linda. The compound has no doors, which yields a scene in which George tries to use a toilet and is bewildered to find other residents gathering around him to chat. Drugs are held to be a wonderful way to explore one’s inner self — until Linda climbs into a tree while high on hallucinogens and nearly dies because she thinks she can fly.

Everything is shared in the commune, a concept George initially finds charming when he admires another guy’s shirt and the man whips it off and gives it to him. Payback comes when the other resident insists on borrowing George’s car, and promptly drives it into a pond. What’s the big deal, man? It’s only a possession. It happens to be a possession George urgently needs to get to a job interview.

George is tempted by the free-love spirit of the place when a sexy blonde (Malin Akerman) offers him no-strings attached sex, but when he talks his wife into accepting such an arrangement, she immediately sleeps with Seth. Jealousy doesn’t seem like such a groovy feeling, and being unused to the art of seduction George messes up his opportunity with the hot blonde by talking too much while trying to be sexy. Moreover, the supposedly anti-materialist, money-disdaining Seth turns out to be eager to sell out everyone on the commune for his own individual benefit, and the hippie co-founder played by Alda isn’t actually a vegan – every week he sneaks off to the local greasy spoon to stuff himself with ham and sausage.

The turning point of the movie arrives when George, visiting his brother again, discovers the underlying reason why his sister-in-law is so unhappy — infidelity. She has known for years that Rick has been cheating on her, and the information has made her depressed and despairing. George suddenly understands that infidelity, whether you call it “free love” or not, destroys relationships, and by the end of the movie he and Linda are back in a monogamous marriage in their own private living space, with their own private property, solidly middle-class jobs and solid walls to shut out other people.  Forty-something years after Easy Rider ushered in an age of countercultural movies, Hollywood rarely produces a work as counter-countercultural as Wanderlust.