What Happens in Vegas (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What Happens in Vegas takes the "thin line between love and hate" approach to the romantic comedy. It's a time honored tradition: the characters begin as antagonists but end up madly in love. Along the way, sparks fly. In this case, director Tom Vaughan starts his protagonists out as if they're in The War of the Roses but concludes with them in the grip of emotions that make it impossible to live without one another. The film's misstep - and it is a significant one - is to take too long to tone down the broad, cartoonish portrayals of the leads into something resembling human beings. As a result, the first half of What Happens in Vegas plays like shrill sit-com material.

The stars are Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher, both of whom have shown themselves to be comfortable in rom-com surroundings. This isn't one of the great romantic couplings of our generation but the two play well enough off one another that it works and, with so many bad pairings gracing the screen in recent years, that's about all one can ask for. Kutcher plays Jack Fuller, a slacker whose life is so rootless that he can't even hold down a job working for his father. He's a laid-back commitment-phobe who's most at home at a party where the majority of the attendees are unattached, attractive women. For Kutcher, it's a role he could perform in his sleep. Cameron Diaz is a harder sell as Joy McNally, a Wall Street juggernaut who schedules every moment of her day.

These two end up in Vegas when they need a break from the hard knocks of New York. Jack and his best buddy, Hater (Rob Corddry), head to Sin City following Jack's dismissal from work. Joy and her gal pal, Tipper (Lake Bell), are there after Joy's fiancé gives her the heave-ho. Jack and Joy meet when they are mistakenly given keys to the same hotel suite (something that happens all the time in romantic comedies but almost never in real life). Soon, they're getting drunk and getting hitched. When they wake up the next morning, they start planning their respective exit strategies (Annulment? Divorce?) until one pull of the slot machine has them wrestling over how to split $3 million. A judge (Dennis Miller) sentences them to six months of marriage before he will decide who gets what. So, in true movie fashion, instead of trying to make the best of a bad situation, Jack and Joy devote themselves to delivering as much misery to the other as they can manage - until, that is, they start to fall in love.

This is one of those movies where the supporting characters have a tendency to pilfer scenes from the stars. Thus, although the movie is supposed to be about Jack and Joy, many viewers will want to see more of Hater and Tipper. There are times when these two make a more interesting partnership than our A-list lovers. There are a couple of high-profile actors in small roles. Dennis Miller is the judge with a nasty sense of humor (forcing two clearly incompatible people to live together for six months) and Queen Latifa is a therapist who sees through the b.s. that Jack and Joy are selling at their marriage counseling sessions.

The biggest failing of What Happens in Vegas is how it handles tone and character. The first half feels a lot like every not-so-funny comedy in which everything is played broadly and the protagonists are caricatures, doing and saying things loudly and behaving like the constructs of a writer who will do anything for a cheap laugh. Then, as the romance kicks in, things settle down. Joy and Jack show soft spots and begin to display evidence that they can be more than one-dimensional. What Happens in Vegas is a tale of two halves. Throw out the first 45 minutes and go directly to the part of the movie where the characters and situations become, if not entirely appealing, at least comfortable.

In the romantic comedy genre, What Happens in Vegas is forgettable. Years from now, no one will remember it and mentions of the title will draw blank stares. It's not bad enough to sting like an infected insect bite and it's not good enough to make its way to home video libraries. The movie has one thing going for it when it comes to regurgitating the expected formula: it never introduces any serious "romantic complications." This allows the action to focus on Joy and Jack throughout rather than following one of them as he or she has a fling with an ex. (There is an ex, but his screen time is strictly limited.) Diaz and Kutcher work well enough together that this isn't an unwelcome development, especially once the movie disposes with its over-the-top attempts at outrageousness and starts getting us to care about their characters. Sadly, about the nicest thing I can say about What Happens in Vegas is that I didn't hate it - although I suppose that's something.

What Happens in Vegas (United States, 2008)

Director: Tom Vaughan
Cast: Cameron Diaz, Ashton Kutcher, Rob Corddry, Lake Bell, Jason Sudeikis, Queen Latifa, Dennis Miller
Screenplay: Dana Fox
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Music: Christophe Beck
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2008-05-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1