There have been few recent movies 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 Swingers and Made co-stars 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 sequence is just lame. But they all pale next to the climax, which simultaneously wraps 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.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
You can call Couples Retreat a lot of things, but ugly ain't one of them. The crystal clear blue waters, tall palm trees, and green mountains of the Eden resort look terrific in 1080p; color saturation is bright, bold, and full. The Chicago winter scenes, dingy and grey, prove a nicely realized contrast. Skin tones are natural and black levels are deep, though there is some softness to the 1.85:1 image during some of the indoor and night scenes.
No complaints about the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, either; dialogue is clean and clear in the center channel, and while that's where most of the action is, surround channels are frequently (if subtly) engaged during outdoor sessions and resort scenes. The climactic scene at the singles resort is nicely immersive and heavy on the bass as well.
Spanish and French 5.1 DTS mixes are also available, as is a Descriptive Video Service track. English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are also offered.
The Picture-in-Picture Audio Commentary by director Peter Billingsley and actor/co-writer Vince Vaughn is, oddly, offered up as a U-Control option, so it doesn't run throughout the entire film--the viewer can either jump through on the chapter menu to watch the commentary, or pop into it during the film. I guess it's a good way to eliminate pauses and dead spots, but it's kind of an awkward way to watch it. As for the track itself, it's surprisingly analytical and not terribly funny (particularly compared to, say, how funny Vaughn is on the Made commentary).
Next up is the "Alternate Ending- Back in Chicago" (2:56); one can understand why they went in another direction, since this scene is all sappy goodbyes and half-jokes. The "Gag Reel" (3:22) isn't that heavy on laughs, but confirms that the cast at least had a good time on set ("This is gonna be great for the DVD, but Akerman, we've gotta make a movie!"). Nine Deleted Scenes (10:01 total) follow, including those controversial infidelity scenes glimpsed in the original trailers, plus three pretty funny Extended Scenes (4:22 total); the alternate ending, deleted scenes, and extended scenes are all available with optional audio commentary by Vaughn and Billingsley.
"Therapy's Greatest Hits" (5:31) is a montage of outtakes from the improvisations in the therapy scenes; some are funny, most are a waste of time. "Paradise Found: Filming in Bora Bora" (6:18) is one of the disc's few behind-the-scenes featurettes, with location footage and interviews, though the primary focus (as indicated in the title) is on the location. "Behind the Yoga" (4:26) is also a making-of piece, concentrated on the yoga sequence, including rehearsal footage and cast and crew interviews.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled, so there's access to Universal trailers and all kinds of "Social Blu" options that I can't imagine actually using. A second Digital Copy disc is also included for viewing on mobile devices.
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.