What you make of the new comedy Wanderlust may depend on where you stand in the 50-year-long hippies-versus-straights continuum. Those who were around for the 1960s will already be familiar with fun-loving flower children, in their trademark pot-and-patchouli haze, gently enlightening their clueless elders about the evils of the modern world. (They will also recall the Manson Family, and the second thoughts it engendered about communal squalor and love-bead totalitarianism—the latter phenomenon memorably revisited in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.) For geezers like these, the movie’s culture-clash humor may seem seriously dated, and pointless.
Those who missed the ’60s, however, or who were just being born in the ’70s, could—I’m guessing here—find fresh laughs in the picture’s vintage counterculture set-ups (especially if they discerned hilarity in director David Wain’s 2001 cult film, Wet Hot American Summer). To such viewers, I commend this movie.
The straights this time out are a suit-and-tie office drone named George (Wain veteran Paul Rudd) and his wife Linda (Jennifer Aniston), upward-strivers in cutthroat Manhattan. One day, George loses his job; and Linda—who has failed in such previous careers as children’s lit and the pottery biz—bombs out in her latest endeavor, documentary filmmaking. (The scene in which she unsuccessfully pitches HBO on a doc about penguins with testicular cancer is one of the funniest things in the movie.) Desperate to stay afloat, they decide to drive to Atlanta, where George’s mega-obnoxious brother Rick (Ken Marino) has offered him a job in the Porta-Potty trade. Along the way, the couple pulls over at a bed-and-breakfast hostelry, and are surprised to discover, upon checking in, that it’s actually a hippie commune, now in its fortieth year under the benevolent guidance of graying founder Carvin (Alan Alda). Here, the R-rated fun, such as it is, really gets underway.
George and Linda are startled by all the familiar hippie signifiers on display—the stoned camaraderie, the casual skinny-dipping, the rampant guitar strumming. The next day they continue on to brother Rick’s Atlanta McMansion; but this doesn’t go well (for them or us: Marino’s mega-obnoxiousness is gratingly authentic), so they soon decide to return to the commune, where life seemed so blissful.
At first it is. George is seduced by the general pot-party atmosphere, although a little unnerved by the no-strings sex on offer. (“Think about being inside me,” suggests a pretty hippie, played by Malin Akerman.) Linda finds herself drawn—awfully quickly—to a smarmy hunk named Seth (Justin Theroux, previously featured in Wain’s 2007 film, The Ten). Soon we get the requisite scenes involving home-brewed hallucinogenic tea (“Why is the grass crying?” asks Linda, in zonked wonder), and a “truth circle” in which participants are encouraged to reveal their darkest hostile feelings about one another. The movie is also boldly committed to full-frontal nudity – although mainly that of a character called Wayne (amiable Joe Lo Truglio), whose pendulous member is frequently on display, and, indeed, sometimes right in our face. (On the other hand, when the women strip off their shirts in one scene, their breasts are carefully obscured).
Rudd and Aniston are at their most appealing here (although Rudd’s rehearsal of gross-out seduction lines in a mirror is an over-long embarrassment). But the movie seems to me crucially hobbled by its premise. Who, at this late date, could be surprised, let alone shocked, by the old-timey hippie lifestyle? Have George and Linda never seen Woodstock? The picture mocks both the visiting urbanites and the woozy communards (displaying one of his hippie-dip artworks, Seth says, “I made it last Kwanzaa.”); but in the end, it comes down on the side of big-city values. The movie’s string of sometimes funny gags seems to be its only purpose—it’s like a TV sketch that won’t stop. That it finally does struck me as one of its chief virtues.
Bullhead is a grim Belgian movie about the illicit trade in agricultural growth hormones. Subtitled, of course. What’s not to like, right?
And yet the film is very much worth seeing for the great, smoldering performance of its star, Matthias Schoenaarts, playing a rural brute with a hideous affliction.
Schoenaarts’ character, Jacky Vanmarsenille, unmarried and lonely in his mid-thirties, still lives with his parents on their cattle farm, where illegal hormones have always been used to expedite the growth of steers, hastening them on their way to profitable early slaughter. Jacky also has a personal interest in growth hormones—he’s addicted to steroids, which have enabled him to bulk up to fearsome proportions. (We see him sitting naked in his room, like a hunk of ancient statuary, shooting up his drug and then shadowboxing with unseen opponents.)
Jacky’s backstory is uniquely disturbing. Twenty years earlier, when he was just a kid, he and his best friend, Diederik, crossed the path of a group of teenage toughs led by a budding psychopath named Bruno (played with scary conviction by David Murgia). Jacky was smitten with Bruno’s younger sister, Jeanne, whom Bruno was in the habit of pimping out to local farmboys. An altercation ensued and, in a spectacularly horrific scene, we see how Bruno attacked Jacky and left him half dead. Diederick was prevented by his nervous father from telling the police what happened, and so the incident was dismissed as a simple accident. Jacky and Diederik became estranged, and didn’t speak for years.
Back in the present, Jacky has become entangled with the slick leader of the “hormone mafia,” whose chief enforcer turns out to be the now-grown Diederik (Jeroen Perceval). In reality, Diederik is actually an undercover police informer who realizes—following the murder of a cop—that his old friend could be swept up into an investigation of the kingpin’s gang. At the same time, Jacky has relocated the grown-up Jeanne, who now works in a perfume store and doesn’t seem to remember him when he pays a visit. His longing for her kindles a flicker of hope in his dismal life, but it seems, from all that we know, to be doomed.
Bullhead is nominally a crime story, played out amid shabby cafes, grotty truck lots and farmyards, and the somber flatlands of the Flemish countryside. But the movie’s real interest is in meaning of masculinity, and the varieties of its expression. The basic gang tale fades in interest whenever Schoenaarts moves to the center of it. Playing a character who’s near to bursting with bottled-up torment, and helpless in his towering steroid rages, the actor’s broody charisma strongly recalls Tom Hardy (who also bulked up for his role as the titular hard case in the 2008 Bronson). Like Hardy, Schoenaarts can convey a world of pained feeling through hooded eyes; and like Hardy, before his breakthrough in films like Inception and Warrior, Schoenaarts seems primed for a much larger career.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available from St. Martin’s Press. He can be followed on Twitter at: @kurt_loder