By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
About the only thing that sets “Couples Retreat” apart from the annual dozen or so movies of its formulaic ilk is that Peter Billingsley directs it. You know, little, bespectacled Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” (1983) who, despite Mom’s admonitions that he’ll shoot his eye out, prays night and day for Santa to bring him a BB gun.
If you’re not familiar with raconteur Jean Shepherd’s heartwarming look back at holiday, family and innocent youth, this is kismet—a chance to acquaint yourself with the classic and save around $56.01 in the bargain. Just skip “Couples Retreat,” which would come to $60 for two tickets, dinner and a babysitter, and rent “A Christmas Story” for only $3.99.
For pity is, while Billingsley has spent much of the last twenty-six years honing his craft as a producer, it plainly hasn’t done much for his directorial skills. Then again, the film is a box office hit, precisely because it panders to the common denominator preferences that stuff Cineplex seats. Maybe Ralphie wisely figures not everyone can be an Orson Welles.
Which doesn’t mean he can’t be rich. In the lovingly acerbic words of H.L. Mencken, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” And “Couples Retreat” estimates it just right. In all fairness, my own poor taste resulted in a dozen titters, two chuckles, three chortles and six hearty laughs. But nope, no guffaws.
Nor was I philosophically stimulated or did I learn anything new about the art of marriage as four, span-the-spectrum couples of thirty-something vintage seek connubial epiphanies on an island retreat designed for that purpose. The script, written by Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau (who also star) and Dana Fox never imagines outside the lines.
But the scenery is pretty, as are the ladies, and the men are cast in such stereotypical light as to almost be laughable. Jason Bateman’s Jason, the over-analytical guy of the bunch, and equally logical wife Cynthia, played by Kristen Bell, hatch the venture. Their marriage on the rocks, they need three more couples to get the retreat’s bargain rate.
So, much to the moans and groans of their prized pals, they make a PowerPoint presentation. Theorizes Jason, since a divorce will cost X, and it’ll be X amount of years before they get their lives back on track, this is a sound investment their friends should support. Plus, they get to go away together and sip drinks adorned with umbrellas.
What the other six don’t know until they arrive at Eden West on tropical Bora Bora is that there’s no escaping the therapy aspect of this ballyhooed escape to paradise. Jean Reno’s Marcel, the spiritual Grand Kahuna of the joint, is part Svengali, part Richard Simmons. It’s a one-joke portrayal that facilitates several too many, off-color innuendos.
Thus, paved with naughty intentions, the predictable saga plays like a malformed cross between an “I Love Lucy” episode and one of the popular new raunch fests. There is the obligatory, suggestive session with the masseur, an exercise class that unsurprisingly requires some disrobing, a steady patter about potential infidelity and much contrivance.
The characterizations, actually large, easy-to-read caricatures, match the plot’s lack of creative effort. Accompanying Jason and Cynthia are disenchanted Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis); supposedly stable Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman); and divorced, overweight Shane (Faizon Love) and his young squeeze, Trudy.
Joey and Lucy, both possessing wandering eyes purportedly because they are the football hero and the cheerleading captain who wed too young, monopolize the meditations on cheating. For Shane, it appears the painful rigors of therapeutic island revelation just might surface the downside of dating a gal (Kali Hawk) twenty years his junior.
But we don’t really care about those window dressing folk. One is more apt to wonder what the respite will unearth for Dave and Ronnie, the normal duo with whom we relate. And yep, just as suspected: He’s been preoccupied with the launch of his video game, Guitar Hero 5, and it’s left dear wife to redesign the bathroom all by her lonesome.
In real life it would be fortunate that the personae are relatively young and as yet unconcerned with health issues or funding college educations. But even in broad farce this is a problem. You can extract only so many laughs from abundance and the jaded love challenged. The viewer is left to slosh around in a muck of decadent trifles.
Great humor comes from seeing the hopeful wink in pathos a la Chaplin and finding the humanism in our foibles a la Woody Allen. Whereas with “Couples Retreat,” Billingsley is too lazy, too inept or too consumed with mining that profitable mediocrity—including brazen product placement—to bother with art. But it sure will buy him a lot of BB guns.
“Couples Retreat,” rated PG-13, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Peter Billingsley and stars Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau and Malin Akerman. Running time: 107 minutes
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