In the woods with Paul and Jennifer, Oscar-Winning A Separation opens

by Mark Burger

The swingin’ ’60s are alive and well, more or less, in Wanderlust , an agreeably raunchy farce headlining Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, both of whom have some experience in big- (and small-)screen comedy.

Finding themselves out of work and at loose ends, onceaffluent Manhattan power couple George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) depart for Atlanta, where a job for George awaits with his obnoxious brother (co-writer Ken Marino).

By sheer happenstance — so common in movies like these — George and Linda stumble upon a bucolic country commune overseen by Carvin (Alan Alda, avuncular as always, if a bit more grizzled than usual) and essentially run by Seth (Justin Theroux, Aniston’s offscreen beau), a supremely self-confident guru who’s too hip to be true.

George and Linda impetuously decide, to paraphrase a ’60s axiom, to drop out and turn on. Free will, free love and an abundance of drugs are quite enough incentive for them to “go native,” although eventually for them (and for the film), the novelty wears off a bit.

When George regales his new friends by playing a Spin Doctors’ standard on his guitar, Seth one-ups him by playing the song better. Nevertheless, George and Linda believe they’ve found a new haven with these latter-day hippies.

That George beguns parrying with Seth for Linda’s attentions is hardly a surprise, but Rudd and Theroux bring good laughs to their onscreen competition, although it’s predictable how it all turns out in the end.

Aniston and Rudd are an attractive screen couple, and there’s good support from Kathryn Hahn (especially funny), Malin Akerman, Lauren Ambrose and Joe Lo Truglio, the latter as an overly friendly nudist. Director/co-writer David Wain, who guided Rudd through his paces in 2008’s Role Models, keeps things light and buoyant. Wanderlust is frequently ribald but it’s rarely mean-spirited.

There is some semblance of a story involving the possible closure of the commune, but it’s hardly important, and some narrative gaps indicate that the filmmakers felt likewise. The film is basically a series of loosely constructed comedic vignettes, most of them pretty funny. Both Rudd and (particularly) Aniston have made their share of throwaway movies, but Wanderlust is better than most.

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation , which opens Friday and won the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film, offers an incisive glimpse into contemporary Iranian culture by focusing on the human beings who exist within it. The film is enlightening and empathetic, and the characters recognizably identifiable in their attitudes, even when at odds.

As indicated in the title, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) are on the verge of divorce. She has obtained travel visas for her and their daughter (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) so that they may travel to the United States, but Nader is adamant about staying because his father (Ali- Ashgar Shahbazi) is stricken with dementia.

In desperation, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a local nurse, to tend his father, but when he accuses her of stealing an angry altercation follows, and what first appeared to be a temporary solution instead backfires for all concerned.

Razieh claims that Nader manhandled her, causing her to lose her unborn baby in the process. Nader, who had no idea she was pregnant in the first place, is horrified — but adamant that he didn’t injure her. Razieh’s husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who was unaware that Nader had hired her and was in fact the first person Nader considered hiring to care for his father, is understandably enraged.

With each family trying to prove the others’ culpability, they find themselves at the mercy of an uncaring legal bureaucracy. As their accusations intensify, they essentially destroy themselves from within.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, but A Separation never becomes bogged down in melodrama or easy sentiment, and is instead conveyed with an urgency and increasing tension that never stretches credibility. These characters are certainly flawed, but they’re not unlikable or unsympathetic, and believably drawn in Farhadi’s Oscarnominated screenplay.

In the end, no one really wins. Everyone has experienced a severe loss of some sort, whether it be the loss of a child or the loss of family structure, and there’s no way to recover what he been lost. It’s a quietly powerful message in a film impossible to take lightly. (In Persian with English subtitles)