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Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston make stale jokes work in ‘Wanderlust’

Paul Rudd Jennifer Aniststar as ambitious Manhattanites who relocate Georgi'Wanderlust.' | Universal Pictures

Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star as ambitious Manhattanites who relocate to Georgia in "Wanderlust." | Universal Pictures

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George Paul Rudd

Linda Jennifer Aniston

Seth Justin Theroux

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by David Wain. Written by Wain and Ken Marino. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use.). Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: March 25, 2012 8:16AM

Again with the male organ as a punch line. When are we gonna get past the male organ as a punch line?

I vote for right now.

From “Borat” to “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” from “Superbad” to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” from “Hall Pass” to “The Hangover Part II,” the penis has become the go-to visual joke in raunchy comedies. When a nude Michael Fassbender came out swinging in the opening moments of “Shame,” I half-expected him to dance around and sing “Safety Dance.”

So when the displaced New York couple played by Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston in “Wanderlust” drive down a winding country road in Georgia and encounter a nudist in the night, we know the humor isn’t going to be limited to his naked buttocks. He’s gonna turn around. And he’s probably gonna wave that thing in Rudd’s face before it’s all over.

Give “Wanderlust” points for not hedging its bets when it comes to the language and the nudity. But when you’re something like the 10th movie to do the penis humor, and you’re a 2012 movie with a core target of a 1960s-style hippie commune, it’s going to take the comedic talents of Paul Rudd and a number of gifted supporting characters to pull it off. And they do. Just, um, barely.

As for Aniston: She’s game, to a point. (Her much-ballyhooed “nude scene” will have Mr. Skin throwing the challenge flag.) She’s always game. But why do I always get the feeling Jen spends as much prep time on her legs, abdomen, tan and hair as she does on her lines?

The setup of “Wanderlust” is a kind of East Coast “Lost in America,” with Rudd’s George and Aniston’s Linda playing ambitious Manhattanites who hit the road after suffering a one-two punch to their financial fortunes. They’re bound for Atlanta, but first there’s a one-night detour to the Elysium “Bed & Breakfast,” which turns out to be a hippie-dippy commune where the music, wine, drugs, sex and peace-and-love doubletalk flow deep into the night.

Still glowing from their idyllic experience at the commune, George and Linda arrive at George’s older brother’s McMansion in Atlanta. Ken Marino (who co-authored the script) is note-perfect playing a pig who would be a caricature except we’ve all met guys like him, and Michaela Watkins is equally funny as his simmering-with-resentment wife, who says the margarita machine she bought from the Sky Mall catalog is her best friend. A horrified George and Linda scamper back to the warm, incense-filled embrace of the Elysian, where they decide to give it a go as the newest members of the commune.

Living off the land! Guitar jam sessions and “truth circles”! Equal sharing of material possessions and romantic partners! What could possibly go wrong?

With a Jesus-like beard and flowing locks, Justin Theroux is deadpan gold as the smug guru Seth, who’s been on the farm so long he urges George and Linda to discard the modern trappings of faxes and VCRs. Lauren Ambrose, Alan Alda, Kathryn Hahn and Malin Akerman are among the standouts playing fellow commune members.

There’s not a ton of plot here. An evil land developer wants to turn the land into a casino, Seth has a thing with Linda, a bombshell keeps making a play for George. Stuff like that. It’s impossible not to laugh when Rudd seems to be improvising a medley of increasingly stupid and raunchy pickup lines into a mirror. Linda Lavin is a subtle delight as George and Linda’s real estate agent. When Aniston pitches the most depressing documentary ever to HBO, it’s equal parts blatant pay-cable product placement and satire.

But the trippy drug scenes again prove how difficult it is to mine comedy gold from hallucinogenic excursions, and some of the recurring jokes are hammered into the ground well past the point of delivering laughs. And we’ve already said more than enough about the penis as a comedic device.

“Wanderlust” is equal parts fresh humor and stale jokes. It’s a 21/2-star movie elevated to three stars because I don’t know if anybody this side of Paul Rudd’s agent is a bigger fan of his than I am.

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