Review: Vacation Friends
By Matthew Huntley
October 1, 2021
“Vacation Friends” is a happy, harmless, “everyone involved looks like they’re having a good time” ensemble comedy that unfortunately doesn’t strive (or go) beyond mediocrity. In fact, it seems so content with being merely a concoction of well-worn comedic setups, conventional devices, and lowbrow, risk-free goofy gags that its commonness almost feels deliberate, and if this is indeed the case, it’s hard to express too much disdain for a movie that essentially accomplishes what it intended, which was to be jolly yet ordinary.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting that five writers are credited for penning the original screenplay, which doesn’t come across as a full-fledged script so much as a collection of familiar bits and pieces the writers probably liked and then ported over from other comedies. It’s just a shame their recycling process didn’t preserve the humor of the original creations because “Vacation Friends” is an experience that, no matter how silly and innocuous, is mostly empty and inconsequential.
The primary setup is one we’ve seen before, which is the idea of “friends” who just can’t take a hint or pick up on the obvious social cues that tell them they’re not wanted. As is typical of this scenario, the unwanted friends’ language and behavior are wild and unorthodox; they show up at the most inopportune times; and when you need them to the most, they simply won’t go away. When “Vacation Friends” started adhering to this recognizable concept, I couldn’t help but think of other comedies such as “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “The Cable Guy,” and “I Love You, Man,” all of which followed the same structure but added more substance and variety to the mix, making each distinct in its own way. “Vacation Friends,” by comparison, doesn’t possess as much freshness or insight and ultimately gets lost in the shuffle.
And just like those other movies, “Vacation Friends” centers around a main character who’s compulsively uptight, does life by-the-book, and plans everything to a tee. This is Marcus, who’s played by the fresh, rising comedian Lil Rel Howery, who first made waves as an actor in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017), and because I’ve listened to the jubilant Howery in interviews during which he seems genuinely easygoing and laid back, I initially had a hard time buying him as someone as neurotic as Marcus, who’s a worrywart and prone to paranoia and anxiety. Still, Howery brings heart and charisma to the role and we’re with him.
The plot kicks into gear when Marcus and his girlfriend Emily (Yvonne Orji) arrive in Mexico from Atlanta. Despite being on vacation, Marcus can’t seem to relax. He owns and runs a construction company and is constantly tethered to his phone. He’s also obsessed with making sure everything with his and Emily’s hotel is just right because he plans on proposing to Emily in a most meticulous way, much to the annoyance of the hotel staff.
Things immediately go awry, however, when Marcus and Emily discover their luxury suite is flooded thanks to the obnoxious couple staying above them. The strapping and former Green Beret Ron (John Cena) and flighty Kyle (Meredith Hagner) are the carefree, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants type who are unassuming, adventurous, and impetuous in all the ways Marcus, and to a lesser degree Emily, are not. They jet ski, experiment with drugs, and are so trusting and welcoming they’re quick to invite Marcus and Emily to stay with them. Marcus and Emily are hesitant at first, but after one look at Ron and Kyle’s presidential suite, they decide to go with the flow and from here on out, it’s party time.
Soon enough, the foursome is taking boat rides together, carousing all over Mexico, drinking heavily, and jumping off cliffs after Marcus and Emily spontaneously get hitched on the beach by a local Mayan shaman. What eventually follows is a potential swapping of partners on the final night of their vacation, although Marcus isn’t exactly sure what transpired after waking up in a drunken stupor. Whatever did happen, he’d like to keep it on the down-low, because now that he’s had his fun, it’s time to return to Atlanta, get back to work, and plan his and Emily’s official wedding.
It’s at this point when “Vacation Friends” shifts from standard “obnoxious friends movie” to “Meet the Parents” wannabe. As such, we learn Marcus is unliked by his future father-in-law, Harold (Robert Wisdom), who also happens to be a veteran Green Beret like Ron, and naturally, Harold doesn’t think Marcus is good enough for his baby girl, although we don’t exactly know why (Marcus runs his own company after all). And of course, the militaristic Harold and his wife Suzanne (Lynn Whitfield) have staged a most elaborate and event-filled wedding weekend, all while not knowing Marcus and Emily were already married in Mexico. Over the next couple days, there will be extravagant dinners, fox hunts, golf matches, spa retreats, the whole nine yards, and so we can expect the usual comedic high jinks, misadventures, and disasters that often accompany such events in movies of this nature.
If Marcus wasn’t already on edge trying to appease Harold, who should literally crash the wedding but the uninhibited Ron and Kyla, who, up until now, Marcus and Emily have dodged for seven months. The persistent Ron and Kyla had to do some research to track Marcus and Emily down, but they’ve now arrived unannounced, uninvited, and, wouldn’t you know, with child. And so, if their presence alone wasn’t distressing enough, Marcus has the added anxiety of not knowing whether Kyla’s unborn baby is his own (because of the uncertain partner swapping).
I wish I could tell the way you’re probably assuming “Vacation Friends” plays out—with Marcus and Emily tolerating Ron and Kyla as burdens before realizing they’re true and valuable friends—is different from what happens, but that’s unfortunately not the case. The routine plot and garden variety scenes of would-be humor more or less fall in line with our expectations and offer no real surprises. We get the usual rivalry between Marcus and Emily’s protective brother, Gabe (Andrew Bachelor), who, like Harold, doesn’t like Marcus (also for no apparent reason); a semi-amusing sequence during which Marcus inadvertently eats mushrooms and goes on a psychedelic trip; Ron losing the wedding rings before going to great lengths to retrieve them; and the big, revealing moment when Marcus puts his foot in his mouth and a huge fight breaks out, which puts all the characters on track to learn the errors of their ways.
All this might have made for a perfectly acceptable and jovial comedy had the movie rendered any substantial laughs, but the problem with “Vacation Friends” is that it’s so formulaic, so secondhand, and so predictable that we almost can’t help but watch it passively. The rehashed, foreseeable material makes it too easy for us to tune out and grow disinterested.
As I mentioned, it’s not offensive, and the actors are all likable and have decent chemistry, but director Clay Tarver doesn’t let the movie break free of its confining mold. He all but ensures it stays safely within limits of the genre and all the other movies it draws inspiration (and essentially steals) from, and so “Vacation Friends” never finds its own voice. It settles on being something whose parts feel borrowed.
Even though this approach doesn’t leave us feeling cheated, angry, or slighted, it’s still disappointing. Despite us believing that everyone involved in its making—both on and off-screen—had a fun time making it, we wish for their and our sakes the movie had put new and interesting spins on its time-honored situations. That way, there might have been more of a reason to watch “Vacation Friends,” because as it is now, I can’t really think of one.