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Posted: October 14, 2009

Dave on film: “Couples Retreat” should be voted off the island

You'll survive it, but it's going to be painful

Dave Taylor

What if you thought you had a pretty decent relationship with your spouse, but had kind of wacky pals, one of whom convinces you and your partner that a four-couple holiday in Bora-Bora is just what you need.

You go, with visions of jet skis and palm trees, just to find that you have to attend obligatory relationship building activities. Now, make it a comedy. Sound funny yet? Well, it's not.

REVIEW: COUPLES RETREAT

I admit, director Peter Billingsley had a tough assignment: take four suburban couples and put them through a series of "relationship building" challenges that were thought-provoking, poignant, revealing and funny. In his attempt to accomplish this, he commits the cardinal directorial sin: he makes everyone a crass caricature, preventing us from engaging with any of them, nor caring about the outcome of their journey.

Worse, it's just not that funny.

Couples Retreat could have been a funny movie, but even the significant acting and comic skills of its stellar cast left me completely uninvolved. The fact that it blatantly stereotyped and poked fun at gays, African-Americans, Asians, therapists, couples who need a therapist, and on and on just added to the pain of being in the audience.

The film stars Vince Vaughn as Dave, a video game salesman who is married to Ronnie (Malin Akerman). They have two young boys and while he works long hours, she obsesses over remodeling their house, dragging him to pick out $1,000 kitchen tiles and insisting he choose which of the different finishes he prefers for new towel rails.

Dave is pals with uptight dweeb Jason (Jason Bateman), overweight black guy Shane (Faizon Love) and perpetually on the make good fella Joey (Jon Favreau). None of these guys are believable, and some pretty heavy material is played, awkwardly, as comic.

For example, Jason is a survivor of testicular cancer, but it's just a setup for a few jokes about a PowerPoint presentation he makes to his friends about avoiding what they call "ball cancer".

It was difficult for me to understand why these guys would be friends when they don't seem to like each other very much, they're not supportive, they don't have shared interests, hobbies, kids in the same schools, or even geographic proximity.

Here's the low-down on the pairings in this movie: Dave is married to Ronnie, Jason is married to Cynthia (Kristen Bell), Shane is with Trudy (Kali Hawk), but is still working through his recent divorce from Jennifer (Tasha Smith), and Joey is married to Lucy (Kristin Davis, who, in a trivia note, was born in Boulder).

Forty-something Shane calls his 20-year-old girlfriend Trudy -- who he's known for two weeks prior to their departure to Eden, the resort referenced in the movie title -- "Boo Boo" and she calls him "Daddy". We meet
them when Shane's begging Dave to co-sign on a new motorcycle loan, while Trudy is in the showroom texting one of her pals.

As with too much in the film, however, that's a one-shot joke, and Shane's buying things to please Trudy never arises again in the film.

Joey and Lucy have their own drama: they're doing their best to appear normal in front of their high school daughter, and even have a touching scene where he explains to the daughter why she can't go out inappropriately dressed (e.g., half-naked).

As soon as she walks out of the room, however, Joey and Lucy get into an argument and it's clear that they're holding the relationship together until the daughter moves out. The problem? Kids always know and the dichotomy between the nice parenting moment and the vitriolic argument immediately thereafter is completely unbelievable.

Again, the daughter has that cameo and never shows up again, even in a single conversation or argument between the parents.

The most problematic relationship to me, though, was Jason and Cynthia. A testicular cancer survivor, Jason is clearly the stand-in for the cerebral, detached modern man. They're trying desperately to conceive, and it's brought tension into their relationship. They suggest to the other couples that a week-long visit to Eden could be great fun and just what the two of them need to try and rekindle the flame of their love.

While Jason and Cynthia sell it to their friends as a fun vacation, it turns out that there are hours of required relationship-building exercises, daily sessions with therapists and more obstacles. The transition from their suburban lives to the island is jarring, and the edits throughout the film had a rough feel, a bit like a work print.

I enjoyed seeing Jean Reno as Eden's director, Monsieur Marcel, but that's mostly because I so liked him in the action film The Professional. The contrast was great fun, similar to Steve Martin's wonderful role in The Spanish Prisoner.

The bottom line: Keep your expectations low, and perhaps you'll enjoy its 107 PG-13 minutes of late-night skits. Then again, maybe a tanning salon and daiquiri would be a better use of your cash.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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