A film review by Craig J. Koban October 15, 2009


2009, R, 110 mins.

Dave: Vince Vaughn / Jason: Jason Bateman / Joey: Jon Favreau / Shane: Faizon Love / Ronnie: Malin Akerman / Cynthia: Kristen Bell / Lucy: Kristin Davis

Directed by Peter Billingsley / Written by Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn and Dana Fox

COUPLES RETREAT marks the fifth on-screen collaboration between Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, who began their careers as an unforgettable comedic dynamic duo in the very funny – and very, very moneySWINGERS from 1996.  The real life bromates played fictitious bromates in that Doug Liman directed Gen-X comedy about twenty-something comrades that tried to eek out an existence in L.A..  One thing that truly stood out about SWINGERS – which represented one of the earliest Favreau written scripts – was just how well it had its finger on the pulse of these snappy, verbose, irreverent, vulnerable and sincere hipsters: SWINGERS knew the fragility of the guarded male bravado better than most comedies, which allowed its laughs to simmer with a truthfulness and understanding. 

That film launched their respective film careers and led to future collaborative efforts, like in 2001’s dreadfully undervalued MADE (written and directed by Favreau); 2006’s THE BREAK UP, last year’s intermittently funny, but forgettable FOUR CHRISTMASES and (to a much lesser extent) the Vaughn-hosted documentary, WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW.  Very few of their on-screen collaborations have had the same sort of acerbic bite and worthy repeat viewing clout as SWINGERS (although MADE deserves worthy mention) and it certainly appears that the two BBFs have definitely aimed for more mainstream comedic fare since the mid-90’s.  

COUPLES RETREAT – written and produced by the pair – certainly elicited much anticipation from me before its release.  Regrettably, the resulting film – while still maintaining a very high laugh quotient throughout its running time – nonetheless feels like a Vaughn/Favreau project that is disingenuous to the rancorous and spontaneous comic instincts of the pair and instead seems to flounder in mundane, banal, and sorrowfully contrived rom-com clichés and predicaments.   This is a film with grade-A level comedic pedigree in its two stars that have effortless chemistry together and certainly are smart enough to made even meager films uproarious, but only so much of them goes a long way here.  They are substantially smarter and funnier than the script they have written. 

The setup of COUPLES RETREAT is decent: We are introduced to Dave (Vaughn) and his wife Ronnie (the ravishing Malin Akerman), who seem to have a perfect and picturesque marriage (granted, Akerman’s cover girl flawlessness seems far too luminous to be taken seriously as a semi-beleaguered homemaker mother of two). We meet another couple comprised of Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (a really bland Kristen Davis) that seem like an icy foil to Dave and Ronnie: they married out of wed lock and seem to be looking for any simple reason in the world to get a quick divorce.  From here we meet Shane (a very funny Faizon Love) that has just gone through a painful divorce and – after being left in financial and emotional ruin – has shacked up with a pea-brained hotty half of his age in Trudy (Tasha Smith).  Finally, to round off this couples quartet are Jason (Jason Batemen, always terrifically dry and understated) and Cynthia (Kristin Bell, always adorable) that are on the verge of ending their lifelong commitment of happiness together once and for all.  Perhaps part of their problem is that they are remorselessly uptight yuppies that spend an agonizing amount of time analyzing their lives.  Just how bad are they?  Well, they show their friends a power point presentation chronicling their troubled marriage complete with every minute detail of where they have gone wrong over the last several years.  These people take anal to a whole agonizing new level. 

However, Jason and Cynthia have a master plan to save their marriage: They want to go to the ultimate couples resort enticingly named Eden, which is a beautiful vacation destination in Bora Bora that promises seven days of great food, great beach related activities, and therapy.  Now, the only way they can afford to attend is if they convince all of their other coupled friends to also attend (they will receive a massive group discount).  Unfortunately, everyone seems lukewarm at first, but after Jason convinces everyone that they therapy angle will be his and Cynthia’s problem alone and that everyone else can enjoy the “fun stuff,” all of the other couples begrudgingly agree to partake. 

When the couples do arrive at Eden they are instantly taken away with the luscious natural sheen of their surroundings.  However, things begin to slowly drift south from hereon in.  Firstly, they all must reside at Eden West, which is where troubled couples go for a relationship tune up (yes, there is an Eden East, which is a more enigmatically hedonistic pleasure paradise where singles go to…well…drink and get laid…and often).  Even worse is the fact that their host for the seven days, Cstanley (played with delicious pontificating snobbery Peter Serafinowicz) first explains that his name is spelled with a “C” and then explains to all couples that they must stick to a strict, early morning schedule of couples skill training.  Their daily activities are overseen by the resort’s chief manager and "couples whisperer," Marcel (Jean Reno, not nearly as funny as he should have been here), who seems annoyingly New Agey to all of the couples.  There is also a ridiculously sculpted yoga instructor named Salvador (Carlos Ponce), who seems to take great relish in putting all of the wives – while right in front of their incredulous and hot headed husbands – in a series of nonsensically eroticized yoga poses, often involving him riding them in ways that strongly echo the Kama Sutra.  Ponce gets an incredible amount of comic mileage out of his semi-venomous enunciation of the word "yeeeeessssss" as he's all but dry humping the women he "trains."

COUPLES RETREAT does generate some noteworthy merriment and large laughs throughout:  I especially howled over when Favreau attempts to explain to a room service waiter why he was about to pleasure himself to a Eden East brochure (he also generates huge laughs as he tries to explain his way out of his erection to his very sexy massage therapist).  There is also a great bit with Vaughn – an absolute master of superbly timed spontaneous verbal riffs – where he hilariously turns his very mild encounter with a baby shark into a hellish ordeal of pain and emotional suffering in ways only he can.  Then there is one couples therapist – played in a wickedly droll performance by the smugly calm spoken John Michael Higgins – that uses a therapy style that makes happy couples begin to radically reconsider their happiness.  I also loved a very brief, but sidesplitting, scene involving Vaughn and Favreau in a “snow sauna” where Favreau finds a rather homoerotic manner of explaining the nature of infidelity (watch how Batemen enters the scene for a textbook example of how to stage a perfectly timed comic reaction).  This sequence highlights one of the pleasures of COUPLES RESORT: Vaughn and Favreau have such an unforced and natural comic chemistry with one another that you almost wish the entire film squarely centered exclusively on them.  Without question, the main stars – along with Batemen, one of the finest understated comic actors around – own every moment of COUPLES RETREAT. 

Unfortunately, for as much as I laughed in COUPLES RETREAT I undesirably was left nagging over the film’s weaknesses, the first of which would obviously be its self-indulgent running time (which, at nearly two hours, is about 20 minutes or so too long for its own good).  Further exasperating the unnerving running time is the fact that the film gets inordinately formulaic and predictable as it progresses: The script has zero suspense because we all know precisely where it is heading.  We know that the well-off couples will begin to doubt their marriage while staying at Eden West.  We know that we will get many scenes where all of the couples – through one artificial manner or another – seem like they are about the split forever and then have the obligatory climatic event where they learn from and understand their respective differences and reach a moment where they can be “true” to each other at last.  Also, we know – I mean, how can we not? – that all of the trials and tribulations of these couples – affected directly and indirectly by the resort – will all reach a tidy and phony conclusion where they all confront their sense of faithfulness to each other while at Eden East, which throws all sorts of alluring and forbidden obstacles in their way.  Yawn. 

Even worse is the fact that COUPLES RETREAT lacks a serious amount of comic nerve and cojones the size of those on that preposterous Yoga instructor.  This is another lame example of a PG-13 film that slavishly feels neutered down from its instincts to be a much more satisfyingly bawdy R.  The jokes at pratfalls in the film – even when many of them work – feel too inhibited for their own good.  The simple answer is that COUPLES RETREAT wants to take the safer route of a more appealing and more audience centric PG-13 rating, where selling tickets means more than creative integrity.  After seeing the phenomenal success of such crude R-rated comedies like THE HANGOVER from earlier this year, I still cannot understand why studios feel petrified of making adult comedies for adults, especially when they seem so profitable these days. 

Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I also would have been a bit more forgiving if Vaughn and Favreau did not pen and produce COUPLES RETREAT, but their inclusion and participation in this creative capacity stymies my willingness to give the film a modest recommendation.  Yes, they seem to be having a great time here (what actor would not want to shoot a film for weeks at a tropical paradise with their real life hetero-lifemates and a cast of gorgeous leading ladies?), not to mention that they also get to be directed by another real life friend in Peter Billingsley, who is famous for playing Ralphie in the perennial Christmas classic A CHRISTMAS STORY and whom would go on to produce films (like many of Favreau’s directorial efforts, like MADE, ZATHURA, and most prestigious of all, IRON MAN).  No doubt, when Vaughn and Favreau appear opposite of one another, they’re comic gold that take mediocre and mundane material to a much higher comic crescendo.  Lamentably, though, they are also too refined, sharp witted, and damn money to be making disposable fluff like this.

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