Couples Retreat (review)

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Get a Divorce

Maybe it’s pointless to complain about the shocking lack of elegance to an instantly forgettable bit of multiplex fluff like Couples Retreat. It’s like complaining about the food at Applebee’s (the butt of one of the film’s attempts at humor, and the only deserving one). You don’t go to Applebee’s unless you’re specifically looking for cheap crap that vaguely resembles nourishment, and you don’t go to a movie like Couples Retreat unless you’re looking for cheap crap that vaguely resembles entertainment.
But, you know, if you found a cockroach in your Zesty Blackened Heterosexual Manly Burger, you’d complain about it anyway.

There’s more than a few cockroaches here.

The notion is that four couples, friends all, verging on middle-age head to a romantic paradise resort for a vacation that turns out rather differently than they’d planned. (Actually, it’s only the 40ish guys and one of the women who are verging; three of the four women are 10 to 20 years younger than their partners, but that’s so tediously “normal” for Hollywood that it’s barely worth bothering over here. It’s certainly the very least of the movie’s problems.) Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman [The Invention of Lying, Extract] and Kristen Bell [Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Heroes]) are considering divorce, and need the resort’s couples’ therapy program to help them decide. But they can only afford a visit at a group rate, so they connive Dave and Ronnie (Vince Vaughn [Four Christmases, Fred Claus] and Malin Akerman [The Proposal, Watchmen]), who are very happily married, Joey and Lucy (Jon Favreau [G-Force, I Love You, Man] and Kristin Davis [Sex and the City: The Movie, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D]), who are secretly near to the point of murdering each other, and divorced Shane (Faizon Love: The Perfect Holiday, Elf) and his new 20-year-old girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk) into coming along.

It’s all actually far more painfully contrived than it sounds. The script, by Favreau, Vaughn, and Dana Fox, is rife with plot devices so thoroughly implausible — even grading on the instantly-forgettable-multiplex-fluff scale — that you have to ask, If it was necessary to invent such awkward absurdities in order to get the story in motion, perhaps this story simply was not worth telling. (It’s agonizing to see how Favreau has squandered his talent as a screenwriter: his scripts for the indies Swingers and Made are brilliant.) A scant few of the emotional details of the couples’ relationships are genuine: Jason’s despair as he explains to Dave how he and Cynthia’s attempts to get pregnant have taken all the romance out of their marriage is authentic (kudos to Bateman, though he is left for the rest of the film to flounder as a control-freak stereotype); and Vaughn is suprisingly appealing as a cheerful dad to two small rambunctious boys.

But once the movie arrives at the couples’ resort, any pretense to sensibility or emotion is thrown out the window. The film’s funniest line — just about the only one, in fact — is Joey’s reaction upon seeing this tropical paradise: “It’s like a screensaver.” But it’s much less funny when you realize that the movie appears intent on being much the same: not pretty to look at (though it is that at arbitrary moments to which no thought appears to have been given by first-time director Peter Billingsley [yes, Ralphie from A Christmas Story]) but a random selection of unrelated pieces gathered in one place for your purported amusement. Now it’s a sendup of touchy-feely therapy; now it’s a humiliation fest playing off the assumed juvenile discomfort of the audience with nudity and sexuality; now it’s a would-be feel-good paean to the ups and downs of marriage and committment. But if there’s a fun movie to be spun out of listening to couples bicker — for you do realize, don’t you, that even the happy couple will be tried by their experience here? — this is not it. I might have expected that Favreau could write such a movie, considering how wittily observant his early screenplays were, but he hasn’t.

Alas that the same complaint — that a movie tries to hit too many notes and ends up missing them all — can be applied to too much of Hollywood’s output these days, especially with movies meant to be comedies. But there’s a special clumsiness to Couples Retreat that elevates it to its own realm of crass obscenity that is perhaps best exemplified by its outrageously awful attempt at product placement. I won’t dignify the product by identifying it, but its name gets dropped early in the movie, and you don’t realize that it’s a gun sitting on the mantelpiece till it shows up again, in the last place you’d expect it, doing the last job you’d expect it to do. (I suspect Favreau and Vaughn and Fox thought this unexpectedness would render the concept funny. It doesn’t.) If previously I might have been willing to chalk up the all-over-the-place messiness of the movie to simple incompetence, now I had no choice but to see it as deliberate and calculated, an attempt to pander to as many segments of its potential audience as possible.

It’s as if the cockroach in the burger were put there intentionally, in the bizarre hope that you’d enjoy the extra crunch.

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Thu, Oct 08, 2009 12:37pm

What is up with your consistent hate of these fil… ok, I had no intention of seeing this. They need to stop riding on the Old School / Wedding Crashers train already.

Thu, Oct 08, 2009 12:54pm

Zesty Blackened Heterosexual Manly Burger

Jesus Christ that sounds good.

Thu, Oct 08, 2009 12:55pm

Is the product placement more crass than Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged me? In that fine piece of celluloid there’s an awkward non-sequitur where Powers, apropos of nothing, tells a club girl to stop touching his “hiney,” only to reveal a bottle of Heineken. Maybe Favreau is going the way of Mike Myers.

Accounting Ninja
Accounting Ninja
Thu, Oct 08, 2009 1:01pm

Um, Austin Powers was actually lampooning gratuitous product placement in that scene. So…yeah.

Thu, Oct 08, 2009 2:38pm

I think that people should take the movie for what it is. It is a comedy!! Who cares about the story line in a comedy. People will pay to see the same old horror flicks over and over again and rave about them. They are the same thing over and over.

Thu, Oct 08, 2009 3:14pm

This is a film that I may enjoy seeing. I have seen the previews and it looks interesting. It appears to be an adult comedy minus all the gratuitous sex and male nudity. Therefore, I may actually enjoy seeing it.

Thu, Oct 08, 2009 6:20pm

It’s a comedy! Which apparently means that it’s perfectly fine for it to suck!

I’ve never understood this argument. I DO care about the story in a comedy, because if there’s no story, it’s just a list of jokes. And usually BAD jokes. If I want that, I’ll go to open mike night at a local comedy club.

Thu, Oct 08, 2009 9:57pm

I think that people should take the movie for what it is. It is a comedy!!

So why isn’t it funny?

New Waster
New Waster
Thu, Oct 08, 2009 11:18pm

Who are these unimaginative robots that attend films and just tune their reaction towards the film’s genre?

“I’m seeing a comedy. They are telling jokes at me. I know to laugh at jokes. Ha ha, I am laughing at the jokes in this comedy. All of these actors must be comedians, for they are telling jokes in a comedy. Ha ha.”

Fri, Oct 09, 2009 7:39am

“Who are these unimaginative robots that attend films and just tune their reaction towards the film’s genre?”

The same ones for whom the laughtrack was invented.

Fri, Oct 09, 2009 9:56am

If there was irony in that scene, Ninja, I must have missed it…When the movie came out there was a real Heineken commercial with Austin Powers delivering that line. They basically just put the commercial in the movie, and it sure as hell didn’t seem like a joke or attempt at satire. Myers did lampoon product placement in Wayne’s World..this was not nearly the same thing…not to mention an earlier scene in Spy Who Shagged Me where Dr Evil has a Starbucks in his hideout.

Fri, Oct 09, 2009 1:59pm

I’m pretty sure it was a mixture of both… product placement as a “joke,” to make it OK.

Sun, Oct 11, 2009 10:47am

I’m glad that Kristen Bell is getting work, but dammit why can’t she find a project that isn’t either minuscule (Fanboys) or shit (pretty much every film she’s been in) or both (arguably Fanboys again)?