Whenever Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau get a scene all to themselves in Couples Retreat (like a sequence in which they debate whether the act of fantasizing is tantamount to cheating on your wife), the movie’s energy suddenly spikes, the dialogue becomes faster and punchier, and you remember how naturally funny and combustible these longtime friends are when they’re together. They’re so comfortable and familiar with each other, they seem to forget the camera is trained on them.
As actors, Vaughn and Favreau spontaneously bring out the best in the other, the way they did in their indelible debut Swingers and their lesser (but still worthy) follow-up Made. But going by the merits of Couples Retreat, the duo should not be allowed to collaborate on a mainstream comedy again — like, ever.
Vaughn and Favreau co-wrote the script along with Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas), and Vaughn also co-produced the movie and hired his pal Peter Billingsley (best known as A Christmas Story‘s Ralphie) to direct. Couples Retreat is essentially Vaughn and Favreau’s baby, and it is absolutely, inexcusably terrible.
It is unreasonable to expect Vaughn and Favreau to maintain their Swingers personas forever (although Vaughn struck a nice compromise in The Break-Up and Wedding Crashers), and it is understandable that at this point in their lives — middle-aged, successful (Favreau is now an A-list director after Iron Man) and comfortable — they’d be more inclined to write about adult relationships, marriage and raising families. But Couples Retreat proves they were better — or at least funnier — when they were poor, unknown and hungry.
Now, Vaughn gives himself dialogue as trite as “Relationships are a two-way street. They’re not a highway and a bike path.” That line would be a clunker no matter who said it, but hearing Vaughn recite it is particularly dispiriting. Hollywood has never known quite what to do with Vaughn’s oversized, voracious persona. But now Vaughn is miscasting himself.
The premise of Couples Retreat — four couples who buy a group vacation package to a paradisiacal South Pacific island discover marriage counseling is a mandatory part of the resort’s daily activities — isn’t bad on a conceptual level. The joke is that three of the couples, who believe their relationships are rock-solid, discover gigantic fissures in their presumably iron-clad bonds (the fourth couple, played by Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell, is the one that cooks up the trip with the intent of saving their marriage, only to discover it may be too late).
But after a promising set-up, Couples Retreat gradually succumbs to all the worst clichés of Hollywood romantic comedies, arriving at a cornier-than-Karo-syrup conclusion that argues no matter what difficulties a marriage faces, they can be overcome with a night of drinks and dancing in which the partners learn to enjoy each other’s company. Cue the happily-ever-after music.
Although the characters are written as ordinary, middle-class Americans who have to plan careful budgets in order to retile the family kitchen, Couples Retreat constantly reveals itself to be the work of rich, insulated celebrities whose lives bear little resemblance to ours. In one scene, the couples strip down to their undies as part of a therapy session intended to make them really look at each other, but all you can notice is that while the men all have real-life, schlumpy physiques (or, in the case of Faizon Love, are just plain fat), the women all look like aspiring contestants for the next season of America’s Next Top Model.
Forget the fact that only rich people can afford to mend their relationships in five-star resorts in Bora Bora, or even that the film manages to make the great Jean Reno, as the resort’s reigning self-help guru, boring for the first time in his career. By the time Couples Retreat devotes five minutes of screen time to an endless scene in which Vaughn plays Guitar Hero — arguably the most blatant and disruptive bit of product placement to ever grace a Hollywood film — the movie has become something close to vile.
The only thing that elevates Couples Retreat above bottom-of-the-barrel dregs like The Ugly Truth or All About Steve is its cast, who are too talented not to generate laughs even when stranded in a movie as banal and lame as this one. Bateman’s slow-burn indignation when things don’t go his way, Vaughn’s whiny tantrum about a tiny scrape on his knee that he claims is a shark bite or Favreau’s session with a beautiful masseuse (“I have a lot of tension in my upper thighs”) are all undeniably funny. Favreau is particularly good, conveying his character’s dissatisfaction with his marriage via a perpetual, vague grumpiness (“You sound like Chewbacca,” he tells a bellhop whose accent he can’t understand).
But the awfulness of the movie gradually eats away at the humor — and your good will. By the end, when the plot climaxes at a big outdoor party filled with beautiful young single people intended to tempt the couples from their respective partners, all you can notice is how stiffly the background extras dance. Couples Retreat is a bad-boy movie made by bad boys who grew up and sold out but are pretending they didn’t. For the first time in their careers, Vaughn and Favreau come off as poseurs, and it’s a sad thing to behold.
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Malin Akerman, Kristin Davis, Kristen Bell, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk, Jean Reno, Carlos Ponce, Tasha Smith.
Director: Peter Billingsley.
Screenwriters: Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Dana Fox.
Producers: Vince Vaughn, Scott Stuber.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 104 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual innuendo, adult themes.