This film is a tale of counterculture tourism. A journey of the heart where the human spirit is led back to their place of origin to find that, yes, yes, middle class conformity is the best possible lifestyle. Thank you... so much, for this portrayal of hippies, culture industry.
Wanderlust is a stupid movie that is sometimes funny although it is mostly exactly the shallow movie anyone who’s watched movies before should expect. A married pair of Manhattan yuppies lose their foothold on the success ladder and are forced to leave the city. The man works in an investment firm that’s shut down by the feds and the woman’s a documentary film director who blows a screening of her latest work in front of HBO executives. After this meeting when the wife seeks solace for her failure from her husband, it's revealed that her filmmaking career was simply a dalliance in a long list of discarded career-paths, revealing that the professional realm is a world of struggle for some and a playground for others. Not just anyone, afterall, can jump into filmmaking on a whim and obtain meetings to screen their projects in front of high-status industry personnel.
So anyways this couple leave Manhattan, the gilded city of success. They had to, because they’re failures now and Manhattan doesn’t accommodate failures. On their trip out of the city they need a hotel, and they find one, but it’s also a hippie commune called Elysium where they feel the good vibrations and decide to become permanent residents after a brief rest in the suburbs with the man's materialistic and success-driven brother. That the commune is also a hotel is crucial in indicating that this turn in their life is as tourists seeking a temporary escape, rather than as explorers of alternatives to dominant values. The man, who was also in the movie Clueless, talks Jennifer Aniston, his wife, into staying with the hippies. Over the course of the film Jennifer Aniston comes to love her new habitat while the Clueless guy wants to leave. Throughout this film there’s all the stuff about naked communing with nature and swaying back and forth to folk music and hallucinogenics and long hair on men that make hippies so hilarious.
There are a few moments in the film that are of interest to me. The first is the already mentioned HBO meeting. Another prime moment of interest occurs towards the end of the film. The husband receives a call for a job interview and is ready to return to the mainstream and besides, he’s not as cool as he thought he was and he likes the commune less and less, so he has a fight with his wife where suddenly he’s arguing that conformity is great if it means enjoying air conditioning again. He argues so passionately in favour of technologically mediated bourgeois urban lifestyles that its easy to forget that earlier in the film he was convincing his wife to give the hippies a chance. The two interesting things about the husband’s statements are, first, at one point he shouts that experiencing air conditioning is the norm in the United States. This statement indicates at once that it is just plain incorrect to live in violation of norms of any kind, and also immediately repositions himself as harshly opposed to the commune. It is interesting to me that his loudest opposing statement to communal life is in reference to air conditioning, which evokes the title of Henry Miller’s critique of American conformity, The Air Conditioned Nightmare.
The second interesting statement in this argument was when the husband accused his wife of ‘drinking the koolaid’. Drinking the Koolade, of course recalling the Jonestown mass suicide where followers of Reverend Jim Jones drank cyanide-laced flavour-ade in 1978, has become a term of critical conformity. Use of this term is how the squares quickly criticize non-conformists for adopting non-conformist dress, language, ideas, etc.
Another scene of interest appears when Jennifer Aniston eats a breakfast meat platter or something like that at a diner in town, far from the isolated rural environment of Elysium. All this meat has to be eaten in secret because the commune is strictly vegan and, uh oh! she finds that the guy who founded the commune is also at the diner eating a big hunk of meat. She’s scared because she’s caught but the commune patriarch reveals that he’s been eating secret meat for years. This scene interests me because it was an opportunity to demonstrate that the strict rules of the commune and its adherents may actually be elastic to some extent... after all, if this hardcore old time hippy can violate the rules, anyone should be able to, to some extent, without facing exile. Instead, this is a secret they share with the implicit knowledge that this violation of the rules means they don’t really believe in the hippie life after all.
The final thing that interests me in the movie is that the commune has a charismatic leader who’s good at everything and has everyone’s admiration and truly believes in the hippie way of living. For some reason he wants to go steady with Jennifer Aniston, and sells out the commune so that he can impress her with his new wealth, even though she had come around to committing to life at Elysium. This was clearly just a lazy movie crisis inserted into the film to move the action along to some conclusion, but it also expresses, I think, a widespread skepticism among mainstream people that anyone can truly avoid the lure of success in mainstream society, because not only is Clueless-man enticed back rather quickly, the hardest-core hippie of the film gives up his lifestyle for reasons that don’t even come close to making sense.