(by Dustin Putman
There are two films opening theatrically in October 2009 wherein characters take a trip to a place called Eden. In "Couples Retreat," it is a tropical resort of white sands and translucent blue seas. In Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist," it is a desolate, wooded area of unthinkable despair, quite possibly the epicenter to all that is evil in this world and beyond. After spending nearly two interminable hours with the shallow, self-absorbed, unpleasant twits that populate "Couples Retreat," you'll be wishing they'd all have packed their bags and gone straight to hell, instead. This non-romantic romantic comedy, the unfortunate directorial debut of actor-producer Peter Billingsley (Ralphie from 1983's "A Christmas Story"), is a hatchet job of low-rent humor, one-note characters, fuzzy motivations, and queasily strained relationship squabbles. The eight protagonists may be in paradise, but their getaway is no fun at all for the viewer. Article continues below
When Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) announce that they are thinking about getting a divorce, they invite their friends—married couples Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman), Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis), and recently divorced Shane (Faizon Love)—to come along with them on vacation to the picturesque Eden Resort. Jason and Cynthia hope to work out their problems—Jason is a control freak and Cynthia feels guilty about not being able to conceive—but it is the rest of them, also including Shane's 20-year-old tag-along girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk), who receive the real reality check when they are forced to participate in therapy sessions and couples skill-building exercises during their stay.
As written by Dana Fox (2008's "What Happens in Vegas"), Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, "Couples Retreat" is a tornado of ill-conceived ideas and shoddy characterizations. Following an inspired opening credits montage of couples throughout the last century scored to David Bowie's "Modern Love," it's all downhill from there. With the possible exception of Dave and Ronnie, who appear reasonably well-adjusted and committed to their children, the film seems to make a point of showing that the other pairs are not right for each other. Jason and Cynthia are Type-A bores, with Jason suffocating Cynthia and she unable to let go of the knowledge that she may not be able to have children. Joey and Lucy barely speak to each other at all, the roots to their issues never explained outside of their wandering eyes. Shane misses ex-wife Jennifer (Tasha Smith) and has taken up with Trudy in a bid to feel young again, but her 20-year-old partying ways quickly wear him down and leave her frustrated. All of them are so involved with themselves that they barely can even give a moment's thought to their beau, let alone carry on a single conversation of substance or charm.
Funny moments of the laugh-out-loud variety are rare, though resort director Stanley's (Peter Serafinowicz) introduction ("My name is Stanley with a 'C'," he nonsensically tells them) is admittedly amusing. So, too, is Trudy, a character who calls Shane "Daddy," talks insensitively about Mexicans, and longs to get her drink on. Trudy may be a racial stereotype herself, but at least she has a personality less bland than the tapioca pudding surrounding her. As for the rest of the picture, in between the flat aims at comedy—doing yoga with scantily-clad, sexually suggestive instructor Salvador (Carlos Ponce); stripping to their skivvies and paying compliments to each other; getting into a sticky situation with circling sharks while in the water—are lugubrious scene upon scene of miserable people being unhappy while either doing things they don't want to do or doing unsavory things that make them no better than scoundrels. Their time at Eden is less a relaxing vacation than tedious work, and that same feeling rubs off on the viewer. As the people on the screen fail to take shape or find dimension, the running time nevertheless prolongs the third act while concentrating on asinine things such as a subplot involving, of all things, "Guitar Hero."
The overstuffed cast is undernourished, to say the least. Vince Vaughn (2008's "Four Christmases") and Malin Akerman (2009's "Watchmen") play things mostly straight as Dave and Ronnie, but then, so do Jason Bateman (2009's "Extract") and Kristen Bell (2009's "Fanboys") as Jason and Cynthia. Jon Favreau (2009's "I Love You, Man") portrays something of a dog as Joey, who requests an "Asian" massage from his female masseuse, while Kristin Davis (2008's "Sex and the City") comes off as abrasive as she struggles to figure out who Lucy is. She—and the audience—never do. How do you squelch the talents of these oft-sparkling actors? This movie pulls it off without working up a sweat. Only Kali Hawk, in her first significant feature-film role as Trudy, gives what could be considered a memorable performance.
How does one further tarnish a movie already in need of a brain? By making it a dishonest one, too. The ways in which all four couples and their relationships wrap up at the end—concurrently, natch—is so falsely positive and ridiculously tidy it could only happen in bad cinema. Director Peter Billingsley does not play fair, and he also gives his irritating characters endings that are offensively undeserved. Ever rekindled a failing relationship by inviting the other person to Applebee's, or admitting to countless unsafe and irresponsible one night stands that, not to worry, are now out of your system? In the alien mind of "Couples Retreat," that's all it takes. Cue kisses. Cue the mugging last-minute bathroom/kid gag. Cue the end credits over footage of the cast water-skiing and finally having a gosh-darn good time. Cue the disbelieving audience throwing up in their mouths.