Things I Learned From Movie X: Couples Retreat
By Edwin Davies
June 16, 2010

Oh yeah, they're a perfectly believable couple. If he's a billionaire.

Vacations are brilliant, aren't they? It's fantastic to get away from it all for a day, a week, a month, however long you want. They allow you to forget the indignities of the mundane and enjoy a life of leisure, if only briefly. Yes, vacations are great, if they're yours. But other peoples' vacations? Not so much. Vicarious leisure is a facsimile of enjoyment that can't help but seem boring compared to actually being there. The disconnect between actually going on vacation and hearing about someone else's is why pretty much every bad sitcom (and a couple of the good ones) of the last two decades has used "watching someone's holiday slides" as a cheap and easy shorthand for "boring and tedious." But a film in which people go on vacation, with a narrative and everything, has to be much better, right? If it stars Chevy Chase, sometimes.

Sadly, Couples Retreat, the comedy hit from 2009 in which four couples travel to Hawaii so that one of them (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) can attend a program that might save their marriage, does not star Chevy Chase, and as such is a frightful bore of a film. Our eight protagonists bumble along through their respective crises until the film just sort of ends, with a quickie resolution that involves characters who hate each other reconciling for no real reason, a deus ex machina in which a character otherwise not seen in the rest of the film shows up to resolve one plot, and Jean Reno offers up some weird platitudes about animal spirits. But just because it's terrible, and it is, doesn't mean we can't learn anything from it.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau used to be so money they don't even know it.

In 1996, Jon Favreau wrote Swingers as a vehicle for himself and his friend, Vince Vaughn. The film was hip, cool and edgy, and even today stands as one of the funniest and most insightful films about male friendship and the ups-and-downs of being single. They were then able to parlay the success of that into respectable careers as actors and, in the case of Favreau, as the director of one of the biggest movie franchises currently going. Why then, would they choose to not only star in but write this broad, clumsy film that is utterly devoid of any insight or wit? Money, baby, money. Conventional wisdom has it that anyone who starts out being hip, cool and edgy will invariably chase the money and start doing the most toothless, middle-of-the-road tripe imaginable to pay for the lifestyle that being hip, edgy and cool afforded them. It happened to Steve Martin, it happened to Eddie Murphy, and now it's happened to Vaughn and Favreau. They've finally turned from young, vital swingers into flabby middle-managers, plodding listlessly through their days in order to collect a paycheck. A big paycheck, sure, but one they earn by doing as little as possible.

The best way to see attractive women in as few items of clothing as possible is to write a film based largely around that idea.

One of the central plots of the film revolves around the disintegration of Jon Favreau's marriage to Kristin Davis, both of whom appear selfish and awful on the outside, but this is only a mask to hide their bitter, hateful souls. Favreau repeatedly talks about how much he wants to cheat on his wife (even though she is being played by the attractive Sex and the City cast member) and spends the entire film ogling young, nubile bodies from afar, ultimately using the search for Faizon Love's girlfriend to run off and party with girls young enough to be his daughter. If this needs reiterating: Jon Favreau co-wrote the screenplay.

Elsewhere, Vaughn gets to be film-married to Malin Akerman, and in one scene Akerman, David, Kristen Bell and Kali Hawk all strip down to their underwear to be looked at by their male counterparts. (Admittedly, the men do the same but, with the exception of Faizon Love, they all wear considerably more than the women do.) Vaughn was one of the other screenwriters.

Anyone who says that screenwriting isn't a good way to get women is, well, correct, but it certainly seems a good way to see plenty of flesh on display and get paid for the privilege.

Incidentally, the Kristen Bell-Jason Bateman pairing doesn't bother me as much as those because a) Jason Bateman didn't write the film, and b) in real life, Bell is engaged to the, uh, interesting looking Dax Shepard, so a more traditionally handsome guy like Bateman isn't that odd a partner.

A film starring Michael Bluth and Veronica Mars sounds hilarious on paper.

If you had told me four years ago that Kristen Bell and Jason Bateman, the stars of two of my favorite TV shows of all time (Veronica Mars and Arrested Development) would star in a film together, I'd have been excited. How excited? Well, for fear of sounding crude, I would probably have required a change of underwear after hearing the news. And if you told me that this magical film would also feature the stars of Swingers and Duane Benzie from Spaced, well I may just have burned you as a witch (or warlock; I'm an equal opportunities immolator) for concocting such a beautiful and perfect creation in my mind.

In theory, this is the greatest comedy film ever made. In theory. In actuality, it's the exact opposite of the phrase "pearls before swine," in that the material is far, far beneath the people expected to delivery it. In fact, I need to invent a phrase that adequately describes just how unworthy of its cast Couples Retreat is: It is swill before eagles. Outside of the main cast, the rest of the film features Peter Serafinowicz, Ken Jeong and John Michael Higgins, all of whom are very, very funny but fall completely flat here. The cast members occasionally deliver their lines in a way which is amusing (such as the hushed, earnest manner in which Bateman describes having sex with Bell's character as being "like an oil derrick.") but you can only polish a turd so much before your hands are covered in crap.

IMing! Facebook! Rock Band! LOLZ?

Do you remember sexting? Remember when that was a thing? No? Well, Couples Retreat remembers, and isn't afraid to mention it in passing in the hopes of getting a laugh of recognition from the audience. Also; aren't jokes about Twitter just hilarious? And by "jokes," I mean just dropping the word "Twitter" into conversation without any relevance or attempt to comment on it? Oh, of course it is. Hearing the names of things I know about is always funny. Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, who have their fingers so firmly on the pulse of popular culture, realize that just mentioning things that are current is guaranteed to yield an untold bounty of laughter, so they drop in references to everything that was hip and happening whilst the film was in production, and which was all sort of current when the film was released.

Overloading the screenplay with intrusive references to modern trends is the cinematic equivalent of an elderly uncle dancing to hip-hop at a wedding. They're trying to fit in, but they're just a bit weird and off-putting. This feeling is reinforced by a climactic showdown in which Vaughn and Serafinowicz play Rock Band against each other to stay on the island. It's like a really lazy episode of Survivor, and perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with the film. Just as watching other people play videogames isn't as fun as actually playing videogames, watching people (vicious, spiteful, awful people) go on vacation isn't as fun as actually going on vacation.