By Carl Kozlowski
October 9, 2009
You've met couples like this before: longtime marrieds approaching 40 and facing stress from fertility problems, workaholism, lack of communication or just flat-out losing the spark and giving up hope. In fact, you might have lived through these problems yourself.But in the new movie Couples Retreat, which not only co-stars but is co-written by real-life best friends Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) and Jon Favreau (a popular character actor who also directed Iron Man), these average middle-class American problems are given hilarious voice through vivid performances and rapid-fire dialogue. Or more accurately, the movie shines when it focuses on those aspects of life in the first half of the film, while disappointingly falling off a cliff for much of the unfocused second half. Yet just like a real-life marriage that lasts, the ups outnumber the downs enough to make this a satisfying if not spectacular night at the movies.
Couples Retreat kicks off with uptight couple Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) begging their other friends—workaholic Dave (Vaughn) and his neglected wife Ronnie (Malin Akerman of the underrated remake of The Heartbreak Kid), and high school sweethearts-turned-bored middle-agers Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis of Sex and the City), and just-separated Shane (Faizon Love) and his ridiculously young new girlfriend Trudy (scene-stealing Kali Hawk)—to join them on a retreat to the Club Med-style resort of Eden. If they can get a group of four couples together, they can all go half-price— which sounds great to the three seemingly healthy couples, as long as they're assured they won't have to go through couples counseling. And so they arrive in what seems like paradise, and of course, everyone is subjected to counseling from the get-go. It turns out that Eden is no mere resort, but strictly follows a program by Marcel (Jean Reno) that forces couples to get deep with each other in addition to following regimented diet, sleep and yoga regimens. And this unexpected rigor sets the couples off, opening up about unresolved issues each never knew the other had. With the hilarious team of Vaughn and Favreau firing on all cylinders again after their cult-classic teamings in Swingers and Made, the early stretches at the resort are filled with hilariously sarcastic dialogue that takes well-placed swipes at the sappy, New Age-y relationship advice dispensed far too often in our culture. Seeing these guys fight for their right to be guys while their wives awaken to the fact they have their own reasons to complain rather than simply accept their husbands' bad habits and passive neglect makes for a sharp take on modern relationships. There's also a hilarious-but-offensive sequence in which the resort's yoga instructor (the brilliant Carlos Ponce) guides the couples—but especially the ladies—through a series of shockingly inappropriate positions and thrusts that offers some of the funniest film moments of the year. But when Trudy disappears from the married part of the resort, apparently relocating to the singles part of the island to get her freak on with her own age group, the couples all have to come together to sneak her back onto their part of the resort or face early expulsion. Here, we're promised a series of comical misadventures, but instead the film strangely pulls its punches and winds up devolving into a series of pat resolutions. Following his star turns in a pair of slipshod Christmas comedies (the bizarre Fred Claus and the cliched yet funny Four Christmases) it's clear that Vaughn's trying to steer himself back on course with Retreat. Not only did he co-write it with Favreau, but as producer he's sprinkled the film with his patented fast patter and hired another lifelong friend, former child actor Peter Billingsley (the immortal Ralphie from A Christmas Story) as director. Vaughn also has the class to depict his middle-class, middle-aged Middle Americans with respect and a fundamental sense that family and solid relationships are what’s most important in life. In other words, the success or failure of Couples Retreat rests squarely on Vaughn's shoulders. He's a steady and reliable purveyor of comedy, but rarely makes a stretch in his acting persona. How much you like the film will largely depend on how much you like your comedy served up: if you like familiar comfort food, you'll be just fine. But if you want something with a truly fresh flavor, you might be disappointed.