From the long list of names on the posters and trailers, you’d think that this comedy would rise above the usual average drivel, but you’d be wrong.
After making a business-like decision about their marriage possibly ending, Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) convince their friends to come along with them to a tropical paradise where they’ll face sharks, yoga instructors, and their relationship problems head on.
There really isn’t all that much to say about this film because it barely inspires laughs. It’s not that Couples Retreat is a terrible movie. It’s just an abysmally average one.
The problems stem from three major reasons, two structural and one performance-based. The first issue is that there are just too many people to juggle in the script, so each couple is given just enough time on screen to make an impact, but not nearly enough to give them any depth. There’s an obvious struggle between focusing too much on Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Ackerman) because they have the most compelling story and giving equal time to each couple because it’s built as an ensemble flick.
The second issue structurally is that the movie bounces from conversational moments to large comedic set pieces without much rhythm. A few minutes will be granted for two characters to get into a fight or talk about their feelings, but then a set up where Dave is almost attacked by sharks takes a lot more screen time. This unbalance is noticeable, especially since the comedic moments are drawn out, not all that funny, and do little more than create a shallow reason for the couples to fight.
All of that would seem par for the course if the jokes landed at all, but many of them don’t. My third issue with the film is that the performances are uneven – Vince Vaughn is clearly so much better at improvisation and his particular brand of comedy that he stands head and shoulders above the rest (except for perhaps Jon Favreau’s Joey who seems to be on a similar level). Unfortunately, he doesn’t do much to make it a team sport. The timing of the group is off, and they barely seem to be working together which works great tonally for a film about dysfunctional people but works terribly for a movie trying to be funny. The men of the cast are flat representations of mid-life crises, and the women fare even worse – mostly just there on the screen without personality or even reasons for existing. It’s difficult to know whether that’s the writing failing the cast or a lack of talent from Kristin Davis and Malin Ackerman. Kristen Bell is a bit better, but there’s very little to work with there, and Kali Hawk’s young, energetic Trudy barely does anything more than whine about how old and boring everything is.
Essentially, it feels like everyone was in it for the paycheck and not for the part. Including Favreau and Vaughn when they sat down to write it.
The shining beacons of comedic hope come from Carlos Ponce as an overly sexual yoga instructor (who at least tries to poke his head out from under the veil of cliches) and Jean Reno who is only funny because he’s playing against his bad ass type. Peter Serafinowicz (who most will recognize as “the pissed off roommate from Shaun of the Dead) is entertaining almost all the way through but is sadly forced to take part in what amounts to a giant commercial for Guitar Hero that’s about as unfunny as things get. To put this in perspective, you know how sometimes sports movies have a tough time editing the on-field playing to create tension? Imagine the challenge of doing that with Guitar Hero. Now imagine failing that challenge miserably.
Over all, Couples Retreat bends at the pressure of its own weight. There are too many characters, isn’t enough story, and it doesn’t deal very realistically with honest marital problems. Which would be fine if it were funny, but unfortunately there are little laughs to be found in paradise.
The Upside: A few solid side characters, and one or two good laugh moments.
The Downside: A bulky film that’s not fun, not all that funny, and suffers from bad characters and lukewarm acting.
On the Side: Director Peter Billingsley has never directed a feature narrative before but has played Ralphie in A Christmas Story which can be seen running 24 hours a day sometime in December on TBS.