There have been few movies this year that I wanted to like more than Couples Retreat. It's got a terrific cast (Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno), it sports screenwriting credits by Favreau and Vaughn (with Dana Fox), and it is directed by their longtime producing partner, Peter Billingsley, who was Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Ralphie, for God's sake!
So it is disappointing indeed to report that, while fitfully funny, Couples Retreat is, for the most part, lazy, sloppily constructed, and crushingly formulaic. It feels like the screenwriters dashed it off in a weekend, realizing that they could get Universal to put up $60 million bucks to finance their vacation in Bora Bora, and ended up filming the first draft, presumably electing to fall back on their gifted cast and their improvisational skills. Not good enough, boys.
It concerns four couples, each with a standard sitcom relationship issue. Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman) have a comfortable domestic life, but tend to put their kids and work ahead of their relationship. Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) are high-school sweethearts who mostly just cheat on each other (I think--as Movieline reported, those explicit infidelities of the trailer are missing entirely from the finished film, leaving their plotline confused and unclear). Shane (Faizon Love) is still smarting from his divorce, and hoping 20-year-old Trudy (Kali Hawk) will help ease the pain. And Jason (Bateman) and Cynthia (Bell) have been so traumatized by their inability to conceive, they're contemplating divorce.
As a last shot, Jason and Cynthia decide to go to a week-long sun-and-therapy retreat, and talk the others into joining them (playing down the couples counseling and so forth). So wacky hijinks ensue, but maybe, just maybe, everyone will learn valuable lessons about how they can blah blah blah blah blah.
As with last summer's Year One, this is not a laughless movie; there are funny scenes here and there (the yoga class; Vaughn and the sharks; the home improvement store), though most of the good gags are in the trailer. But considering how many tremendously talented people are on board, Couples Retreat should be far, far funnier than it is. It never builds up any real comic energy, clattering from one free-standing set piece to another and breaking down far too often with lapses into twinkly sentimentality. There's a way to do this kind of thing well--as Judd Apatow's comedies (and similar films like Role Models and I Love You, Man) have proven, you can make funny movies about people growing up without slamming between rude comedy and Lifetime movie of the week so hard, you give your audience whiplash.
There are other problems as well--Bateman, playing a rigid, unlikable character, is wasted completely; the kids have that movie disease where they all talk like college-educated adults; in spite of the presence of a female screenwriter, the dialogue of the female scenes is tin-eared and false; and the Guitar Hero climax is just lame. But they all pale next to the final scenes, which simultaneously wrap up every thread in manners too choppy, too fast, and too easy (and what they do with Love's storyline is an affront to intelligent screenwriters everywhere).
There is one thing to recommend about Couples Retreat (okay, two, but I should probably keep my Kristen Bell crush in check and not mention how often she ends up in a bikini), and that's Vince Vaughn. Once again, his crackerjack comic timing comes through in the clutch, and he generates most, if not all, of the movie's laughs (when Akerman tells him that their new bathroom tile will run a thousand bucks, he replies, "What is it made of, whale tusks?"). In recent films like Four Christmases and Fred Claus, we could lament that he was wasting his comic gifts with subpar material by lesser talents. This time, he's got nobody to blame but himself.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.