If it weren't for the memory of how fresh and joyful their 1996 film Swingers was, the Jon FavreauVince Vaughn comedy Couples Retreat might seem like any other broad, dumb movie the kind Ben Stiller churns out with alarming regularity with a sizable budget; a gorgeous location; funny dudes; pretty, bikini-ready women; and plenty of sex jokes. Not great but not terrible. But this movie, which plays out like the fulfillment of the Swingers dudes' worst nightmares, is just sad.
It's about four couples who go to Eden, a luxury tropical resort that features couples counseling along with its crystalline waters and multiple hot tubs. Vaughn plays the leader of the glum-married pack, Dave, a producer of video games (including Guitar Hero) who lives with his chirpy wife Ronnie (Malin Akerman) and kids in a snowy suburb. Favreau is Joey, a former high schoolfootball star who got cheerleader Lucy (Kristin Davis) pregnant on prom night, did the "right" thing and has been growing toxically bitter ever since.
Neither man wants therapy, and their spouses don't either Joey and Lucy are secretly planning a divorce but their fertility-challenged, type-A friends Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) are desperate for it, though they can afford Eden only at a group rate. So off everyone goes to Bora Bora with the expectation that the feelings talk is optional. Instead, they are forced into having their relationships analyzed by the resident guru, Monsieur Marcel (Jean Reno), and a team of therapists that includes John Michael Higgins (a brief bright spot) and Ken Jeong, who gets a laugh just by being recognizably that guy from The Hangover, a blessing and a curse.
Couples Retreat was co-written by Vaughn and Favreau, with an assist from Dana Fox, and it has the choppiness you'd expect from too many cooks in the kitchen (in contrast, Favreau was the only screenwriter on Swingers). I'm fine with the original Trent ("money") and Mike (not "money," no matter what Trent said) moving to the suburbs, having kids, getting fat and spending weekends at Home Depot and Applebee's. These things happen. What's depressing is that there's hardly a creative spark in this sour, offensive, contrived story, and its sloppiness is more consistent than its comedy.
Consider the illogic with which the screenplay shoehorns a token African-American couple their buddy Shane (Faizon Love) and his new girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk) into the cast. Shane, a recently divorced man with the belly of a woman fast approaching her fourth trimester, is introduced begging Dave to co-sign a loan for a hot motorcycle that is intended to impress Trudy, who is 20, has pink streaks in her hair and calls Shane "Daddy." (The old joke is that in horror movies, the African-American characters always get killed first. Here they are saddled with such unpleasant stereotyping that being taken out in the first act would seem like a favor.) Dave grudgingly agrees to the loan because he's a mensch but reminds Shane of all the financial trouble he's in. Does anyone bring up those finances when it comes to the bill for Eden? No, because they need Shane and Trudy for comic relief and to make the movie seem less like a portrait of whining white upper-middle-class people. Only to a point, though looking at a poster for the movie, you have to squint to find Love and Hawk. They're way in the back.
The married women fare no better than the minorities. These are retro, sitcom-style wives, bland and humorless. Ronnie frets about kitchen tiles. Lucy lusts after the Fabio-type yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce, ripping off Hank Azaria's shtick). Cynthia lives to please her controlling husband. At least two of them seem to have shackles to throw off, but in the movie, the only things they free themselves from are their clothes, so we can see how they each measure up to those most demanding of standards of director Peter Billingsley: the ability to rock a bra and panties.
There has always been an edge to the pairing of Favreau and Vaughn, but it's usually Vaughn who plays the fast-talking loathsome one. In Made, he played a character so astoundingly annoying, it bordered on performance art, but he got away with it on the strength of his natural charm and youthful beauty. Here he's been neutered, and Favreau takes on the role instead. It's not that Favreau isn't believable as Joey, a horny guy who is angry at the hand life has dealt him. It's that he's too believable. He arrives at Eden with the sole goal of looking for a fresh piece of womanhood, then discovers that it's obtainable only at Eden East, the nearby (and off-limits) singles resort.
In various sequences, we have the privilege of seeing Joey leer at girls nearly as young as his daughter, set himself up for some solo sex on the couch (across America, women will turn away from their moisturizer, shuddering at the memory) and all but demand some extended bodywork from a hapless masseuse. It's gruesome. Undeniably, Favreau brings conviction to the part, but he wrote himself into a hole. Our idea of a happy ending might entail Joey being devoured by sharks somewhere east of Eden. Instead we get marital resolutions based on the fear that nothing is worse than being alone at Applebee's on a Friday night. Lucy may beg to differ by the time Couples Retreat: Return to Eden opens.