An overloaded cast can’t work through the issues of a flabby script and scattershot direction.
One of the most frequently heard gripes about American cinema is that adult movies – films made for grown-ups, about grown-up issues or at least matters relevant to audiences over 30 years old – are on the wane. It’s wondered if people who aren’t in college, or better yet high school, haven’t got the time to trek to a movie theatre and sit still for two hours. (Note to Hollywood: these days most of us are working too hard.) Films made for this demographic, the occasional romcom aside, don’t do as well as the superhero and vampire fluff that have become the studios’ meat and potatoes.
Certainly, marriage and parenthood are relevant, if not crucial, topics for “older” audiences, as are such ideas as romance and keeping some sense of youth and spontaneity alive once day-to-day living takes on a limitless routine. Life goes on, like the man said, long after the thrill of living is gone. Hollywood has a proud tradition of films addressing such quiet crises: The Big Chill, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Two For The Road, The Ice Storm, and quite a few others all tackled its dangers. Notice that all of those films are dramas, however. Not one saw the lighter side of marital ennui and pre-midlife regret.
Couples Retreat could have been a smarter movie, a more mature film, and a sharper examination of the same topics if it tried harder than it does. But instead its script (co-written by stars Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau) too often panders to its presumed audience without ever really getting beneath the skin of the problems that lurk, like the lemon sharks of its lone suspense sequence, just beneath its surface. As with far too many major studio releases these days, the film takes pains to make sure the audience isn’t provoked into reflection, or into questioning the issues the characters only passingly mention they have. In lieu of that approach there’s too many lazy jokes, too much easy humor, too many cutesy-cute sitcommish gags about precious kids. It’s a safe film, from top to bottom and every frame between.
Uptight couple Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) have hit a rough spot in their marriage, stemming largely from their inability to have a child. Strapped for cash and desperate to make their marriage work, they approach five of their friends – two other couples and a recently-divorced male (Favreau and Kristin Davis, Vaughn and Malin Ackerman, Faizon Love) – with a group-rate package vacation to Eden, a tropical resort that doubles as therapeutic boot camp for troubled marriages. The couples agree, with Love’s hapless Shane bringing along his party-hardy 20-year old girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk). Once at the resort the couples’ plans for a vacation are foiled by resort regulations that demand they engage in therapy and communication skill-building sessions.
It’s only a little predictable, maybe, that each couple is in a different phase of disintegration: Favreau and Davis’ Joey and Lucy tolerate each other only until their teen daughter leaves for college; Vaughn and Ackerman’s Dave and Ronnie have just begun to hit the skids; Shane and Trudy barely know each other. So far, so good, except each character takes their respective problem and amplifies it to ten. Part of the problem is that with so many characters, respective characterization gets lost in the shuffle: how can the audience keep up with everyone, unless they stand out? But it’s annoying nonetheless that each character has to go loud to be heard, and everyone’s behavior inevitably becomes childish and plot-focused. There’s very little sense that these people know each other, past some laborious exposition dropped into a belabored first act.
Director Peter Billingsley keeps the plot moving, and again with so many characters there’s a lot to juggle. Individual scenes suffer as a direct result, with episodes trailing off and getting whisked from the viewer’s attention before they’ve reached their dramatic or comedic payoff. The result is an uneven middle and an too-tidy resolution that relies on too much convention, at least one out-of-left-field plot contrivance, and more than a little schlock. A film about adults in marital trouble doesn’t need one gag about a child using a sales floor demo toilet. The story in which two such jokes are necessary doesn’t exist.
The cast, by and large, brings exactly what you’ve already come to expect from them in other performances. Bateman and Bell are charming in their sunny respectability; Vaughn and Favreau are smart-assed and cranky. Davis is Charlotte York. Ackerman is charming and pretty, and seems vastly more comfortable here than she appeared in Watchmen. Love isn’t a bad actor, but watching his sad sack performance I couldn’t help but wish, and not for the first time, that Bernie Mac was still with us. Of the other cast members, Jean Reno is amusing as the resort’s spacey therapy guru, while Peter Serafinowicz does an effective Jonathan Pryce impression as the resort’s maitre ‘d.
Ultimately, it’s hard not to imagine this film as a better choice for a January or February release. Its quality notwithstanding, all the sun and surf lovingly displayed will no doubt offer a welcome escape when winter is at its heaviest. That’s actually about the time the DVD should hit store shelves, so audiences with anything less than a compelling interest in the film would do well to wait until then.
- Michael Kabel