I have been following the careers of all the people in The State basically since they were on The State, when I was in high school. In high school I thought of them as grownups, and only recently has it really hit me that they are only five years older than me. Michael Ian Black just turned forty. I know this because I recently read his new memoir, You’re Doing It Wrong, in one sitting (it’s pretty good (ok I cried)). Most of the people on The State have gone on to have more-or-less cool careers, especially the ones who created “Reno 911.” For the core threesome of Stella (David Wain, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter) it seems to have been a bit slower going, but of late David Wain has been getting some pretty major directing gigs (“Role Models,” e.g.). I don’t really know how the other two make livings. Really, I don’t know how most people in Hollywood make a living. But these 3 dudes have consistently put out awesome shit that exists in the far reaches of the weird alt comedy world (“Children’s Hospital,” the very weird “Wainy Days,” “The Michael Showalter Showalter,” the criminally underappreciated “The Baxter,” etc.).
Anyway, so, it is always a lot of fun to see one of these major motion pictures that on its surface is just another formulaic rom-com, but when you know it’s directed by David Wain you know you’re going to get an absurd twist on that formula that’s going to be pretty satisfying. You also know you’re going to see Joe LoTruglio naked.
Some nerd I heard on NPR was talking about how this movie plays on really predictable, tired clichés (straights meet kooky hippies; commune living) but since the jokes are bigger than you expect, it’s all somehow transformed into satisfaction. I feel like this really captures what is so wonderful about the output of this group of friends over the past two decades. We’ve seen the straight big city people encounter the kooky hippies so many times, but when you take this encounter so far that it passes into absurdity or even surreality, suddenly you have a very different kind of film.
An example: There’s a scene in which Paul Rudd is trying to psych himself up to have sex with one of the hippies, because he and his wife (Jennifer Aniston) have decided to really give this commune living a shot. He’s terrified and confused, compelled and repulsed, jealous, etc. He goes into the bathroom and starts giving himself a pep talk in the mirror, along the “come on man, you can do this” line we’ve seen probably eight hundred billion times in films before. But, as his monologue goes on, it gets weirder and weirder, until he’s doing the most absurd accents and saying the most disgusting appalling things. He moves through British to Cockney to a horrible cartoon hillbilly voice with repulsive facial expressions, talking about his “DEE-yick.” It’s so bizarre–though it feels familiar to fans of Stella and Wet Hot American Summer–that it turns a cinematic cliché into something liberating and wonderful, and you’re rocking back and forth with tears streaming down your face because you just can’t believe you’re seeing this in a film.
The movie suffers from the saggy mid-section that is inexplicably ubiquitous in this genre. When such funny people make movies, why does the middle of the movie get so slack and tedious? Even “Bridesmaids” suffered from this, albeit not as drastically as some others I could name. Katy and I speculated that it’s because once you get even slightly into the mainstream, in terms of “backers” and “studios,” you get a few too many fingers in the pie, and suddenly you’re beholden to actual film clichés, involving the introduction of conflict and then the subsequent resolution of romantic problems and all remaining difficulties, because dumbass movie people don’t think audiences can comprehend movies that don’t have these standard touchstones. In movies like Wet Hot, that were made for a nickel and had no involvement from anyone higher up than Michael Showalter or David Wain, I feel like you can see what a pure vision they actually have. Wet Hot has no real conflict to speak of, no resolution of difficulties, not even a “plot” in the traditional sense. And it also has NO SAGGY MID-SECTION. It is miles above “Wanderlust,” in terms of quality of laughter start to finish. It gives itself completely to the absurd, without being required to give any nods whatsoever to narrative traditions. In fact, part of its charm is the way it insistently makes fun of those traditions, for example in the infamous “Camp Tiger Claw” scene where Showalter basically delivers the entire plotline of a standard 80’s summer camp movie as a pep talk to the camp’s baseball team (“As everybody knows, today is the big culminating, climactic softball game against evil Camp Tiger Claw. We have put together an unlikely team of misfits, and we’ve been training like crazy all summer. Yeah, it’s a motley crew that you’d think would never be able to win a single game. We had a cooky training period where it seemed like, well, it seemed like nothing was gonna go right, but, guys, somehow we made it to the finals. So I say, when those anonymously evil campers from Tiger Claw get here, we give it our best shot, and we try to come from behind at the last minute with some weird trick play that we made up, and we win the game! Whadd’ya say team!?”), after which the kids declare it “pretty hackneyed” and decide they don’t want to engage in the baseball game after all.
It should be pointed out that Wet Hot was a monumental flop in theaters, made zero dollars, and was universally panned by critics. So maybe those dumbass movie people I discussed above actually know their audiences better than I do, which is obviously true and also incredibly depressing.
But in spite of its capitulations to the mainstream, “Wanderlust” still has enough State-like kookiness that I recommend paying good money to see it in the theater. Ken Marino has truly never been better, and here’s Kerri Kenney who you haven’t seen with those other dudes in awhile, and Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston actually seem like nice people who love one another (why is even this such a rarity in the rom-com world??), and Kathryn Hahn is awesome, and Claire from Six Feet Under is in it too! Todd Barry plays a character named “Sherm.” Michaela Watkins is completely brilliant as Ken Marino’s drugged wife. Alan Alda has a weird fight with Paul Rudd about how money literally buys nothing. There are also a lot of didjeridoos, and a “truth circle” where Kerri Kenney keeps interrupting Paul Rudd as he’s trying to speak truth to his wife by insisting that he speak truth to his wife. This is followed by a truly terrifying hallucination scene in which Paul Rudd speaks out of eyeballs turned into mouths.
And of course there’s lots of inside jokes for the heads among us, for example:
– “Love Take Me Down (To the Streets)” makes an appearance
– as does Guitar Guy from Wet Hot (who I believe is played by Craig Wedren, who does all their music)
– David, Michael and Michael play themselves in a really funny scene
– The evil corporate attorney’s name is “Jim Stansel,” which is from Wet Hot (“I’m so late. I have to go meet Jim. Stansel? You know Jim? He’s that guy.”)
– their standard trope of having a character say “I know. I know.” when someone angrily demands an answer to a specific question NEVER FAILS to totally kill me