Originally written for the Source, 10/11/09 edition
"Couples Retreat” is the type of comedy that, two years from now, will be played every Saturday afternoon on TBS, left on as background noise while doing laundry.
Predictable, cliché and just plain lazy, the film often feels like an excuse for its cast to play on the beach while we’re stranded on the audience with them.
The film involves four couples who head to an island paradise in search of rest and relaxation when, in reality, they are in for a week of intensive couples therapy led by a mysterious French guru (Jean Reno). One couple (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) have tricked their friends into the getaway in hopes of mending their own fractured marriage at a discount price. Would it surprise you to learn that their friends--which include happily married parents (Vince Vaughn and Malin Ackerman), a couple on the verge of divorce (Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis) and a divorcee (Faison Love) slumming with a 20-year-old--also have a few life lessons to learn?
Rather than give his couples actual personalities and funny dilemmas, director Peter Billingsley (yes, Ralphie from “A Christmas Story”) has Vaughn, Bateman and Love do their usual shtick, creating personalities out of types rather than allow his gifted comedians to create actual characters. Only Favreau appears to create anything resembling an actual individual, although his individual is the stereotypical jerk who winds up having a heart of gold. The women are simply along out of necessity; they have no distinct personalities of their own, save for bouncing jokes of their male counterparts.
I could see the premise being funny in theory and, truthfully, Billingsley has a talented cast assembled. Bateman can get laughs with his ability to be both snide and sincere at the same time; Vaughn relies on his ability to talk in circles to bring chuckles. The best moments in the film are the fleeting passages between Vaughn and Favreau, who still have a healthy banter all these years after “Swingers”--I have to imagine their original script for this was much funnier before studio meddling.
The problem is that all of the actors have been funnier before, be it Bateman’s work on “Arrested Development” or Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers.” Rather than create anything new or bring a new twist to their personas, Billingsley lets the actors rehash the same old jokes, which have long gone stale. Even Favreau was better in his tiny role in this year’s “I Love You Man.” Love deserves points for the effort he puts into pulling his character away from the stereotype the script so obviously wants him to play; he has a few minutes of true heart near the film’s ending.
Not content to trust his actors, Billingsley throws in jokes about Speedo-clad yoga instructors, misunderstandings at a massage parlor and children going to the bathroom in hardware store toilets (we get this chestnut twice). He also resorts to throwing Kim Jeong (“The Hangover”) in as a therapist…a move that would have been original, had Jeong not appeared in nearly every comedy this year, including on television in “Community.) By the time the couples try to break into the singles’ resort on the other side of the beach and Vaughn has an honest-to-goodness “Guitar Hero” throw down, I was hoping for a little therapy of my own.
It’s not that “Couples Retreat” is a horrible movie; indeed, the audience I saw it with laughed quite hard. It’s just lazy comedy, depending on jokes and characters we’ve seen be much funnier in better, more enjoyable films. You’re not missing much if you stay home and save your $10; but if it’s on TBS, maybe you’ll want to give it a try.