October 08, 2009

Couples Retreat

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Couples Retreat

COMEDY:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-10-09

Running Length:

1:50

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Sexual Situations, Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Faizon Love, Jon Favreau, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, Kali Hawk, Carlos Ponce, Jean Reno, Temuera Morrison

Director:

Peter Billingsley

Screenplay:

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau & Dana Fox

Cinematography:

Eric Edwards

Music:

A.R. Rahman

U.S. Distributor:

Universal Pictures

Subtitles:

none


At the very least, it's necessary to respect what the filmmakers try to do with Couples Retreat, even if the end result isn't fully successful or satisfying. Their goal is to take the basic template for a raunchy sex comedy and change it up by inserting some dramatic elements and attempting to shape the lead caricatures to the point where they almost reach a legitimate "character" state. There are two problems. The drama, while a cut above that which one finds in most alleged comedies, is still half-baked; no one is going to mistake Couples Retreat for a serious motion picture. And the level of raunchiness is limited by Universal's desire to release the film to the widest audience. How brash can a movie be if it's PG-13? (Didn't the success of The Hangover change the game and prove that R-rated comedies can be profitable and popular?)

Couples Retreat contains its share of minor hilarity. There's a yoga scene, for example, that skirts the line of what's appropriate for a PG-13 movie and provokes laughter. Unfortunately, there are long stretches between comedic highlights when not a lot of funny things are happening, and these make the movie seem longer than its 110-minute running time. It's always a difficult thing for a first-time feature director like Peter Billingsley (best known as Little Ralphie in A Christmas Story) to balance comedy and drama and maintain a consistent tone; even experienced filmmakers can have difficulty with this. Couples Retreat has a sine-wave trajectory, riding some humorous peaks then crashing into ho-hum valleys. Although this unevenness doesn't render the movie unwatchable, it limits its ability to provide full satisfaction.

The setup is long and tortured, meaning that it takes about 25% of the movie's screen time before the real story gets underway. We are introduced to four couples, all friends. There's Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman), who have the "perfect" marriage. They're well-matched, hardly ever argue, and have two cute kids. Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) are awaiting the rapidly approaching day when their daughter will be moving out, since that will be their cue to file for divorce. Shane (Faizon Love) has already been through the courts, after being dumped by his wife, Jennifer (Tasha Smith). Now, he's hanging out with Trudy (Kali Hawk), a girl half his age. Finally, there's the hyper-organized duo of Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell), who love each other but are distressed about their inability to have a child. This is putting pressure on their relationship and causing them to re-think their marriage.

The solution for Jason and Cynthia is a spending a week at the trendy couples resort of Eden, which is run by a Frenchman named Marcel (Jean Reno). Unfortunately, in order to be able to afford the vacation, they need the discount group rate. After much prodding and pleading, their friends agree, so it's off to Eden for seven days of food, therapy, and snorkeling. The promised windsurfing, waterskiing, and other "fun" stuff is not on the agenda for couples - it's only there for singles headed for the hedonistic Eden East. Jason, Cynthia, et al. are bound for the more sedate Eden West. Does anyone think a trip midnight trip across the water might not be in order?

At times, Couples Retreat superficially recalls Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Hangover, although it doesn't work as well as either. In terms of comedy, the best scenes occur on the island. In addition to the aforementioned yoga class, which is led by the outrageously muscled Salvadore (Carlos Ponce), there's a witty exchange between the men in a "snow sauna" (it has to do with the nature of infidelity), a snorkeling sequence involving a close encounter of the toothy kind, and some amusing therapy sessions. The ending is rushed and weak, but it's probably about the best one could hope for given how the filmmakers wanted to wrap up things.

The acting is a mixed bag. Jon Favreau and Faizon Love, who never hit a false note, are the standouts. Both are in complete synch with the material, even when it enters moderately serious territory. Vince Vaughn is his usual self, although he allows hints of maturity to slip into his performance. Jason Bateman is portraying a type that's starting to become overly familiar. Of the women, only Malin Akerman seems at ease, showing she's more comfortable in comedies than hanging out with blue-skinned giants. Kristen Bell, who has lost a lot of her Veronica Mars spark, Kristin Davis, and Kali Hawk are largely forgettable. Of the supporting performers, Carlos Ponce gets most of the laughs, with a few reserved for Jean Reno, and almost none for Temeura Morrison, who pretty much stays in the background and bangs a gong.

Despite being mediocre and largely forgettable, Couples Retreat is not unpleasant, although it's easier to recommend it for home viewing than for a trip to a theater. Like Mike Judge's Extract (which also featured Bateman), it contains enough worthwhile material to keep the average viewer engaged, if not enthralled. And for those whose sole purpose in attending a comedy is to laugh, that goal is achieved, if not as consistently as one might hope.

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