Starring Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell and Kristin Davis. Directed by Peter Billingsley. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and language. 107 minutes.
Peter Billingsley, the child actor who played Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” and grew up to become a movie producer, directs his first feature film with COUPLES RETREAT. Working from a script by Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, it was undoubtedly a lot of fun to shoot on locations that included Tahiti and Bora Bora. Unfortunately, only some of that fun is conveyed on screen.
The premise is that four couples go to an island resort to work on their troubled relationships. Actually, only one couple, Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) intend to do so. Their marriage is on the rocks over fertility issues, and they’ve manipulated their friends to join them so they can get a group discount. The other couples think they’re there on vacation. They soon learn otherwise.
Dave and Ronnie (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman) are happy but stressed from work and their two young boys. Joey and Lucy (Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis) were high school sweethearts who got married after she got pregnant on prom night, and they’re feeling burnt out. Shane (Faizon Love) is newly divorced and trying to recapture his youth with his 20-year-old girl friend Trudy (Kali Hawk). Each couple will find themselves tested by Monsieur Marcel (Jean Reno), the marriage expert who runs the resort, and face a barrage of increasingly tired sex jokes.
This is sitcom material where married couples get to feel smug that they’re not as screwed up as the people on screen. When things get dull, this is a beach resort with lots of opportunities to run around in skimpy bathing suits or less. The cheesecake and beefcake on display – and the sex jokes – apparently had the movie flirting with an R rating before being sufficiently trimmed for a PG-13.
There are some laughs but the problem is we don’t really care about any of these characters. Vaughn and Akerman come closest to depicting actual human beings, with the others playing caricatures. Bateman is so obsessive and manipulative he actually made his friends sit through a Power Point presentation – thankfully not shown – on testicular cancer. Carlos Ponce is amusing as a yoga instructor who doesn’t know where to draw the line on bodily contact, but his character is little more than a plot device. It’s not unlike the extensive plugs for a restaurant chain and a popular video game – this reviewer was not paid to promote either so their names will go unmentioned here – that become major story points. Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental.
A movie that asks us to check our brains at the door and simply laugh at the proceedings isn’t necessarily bad, and uncritical and undemanding viewers may focus on the jokes that work rather than those that don’t. However “Couples Retreat” comes across as a movie that was made not because of a burning desire to tell a story and entertain, but because it was felt that if the right buttons were pushed, this might make money. It may well do so. However, that doesn’t make it a good film, or one you’ll long remember after you’ve left the theater.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.