'Couples Retreat': Trouble in Paradise
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Relationships are tricky. Relationship comedies are even more so. Go too light on the real, raw, messy business of living and loving with someone, and you've got a glib, glossy lie. Go too heavy on it, and you're a few barked angry words (or longer, scarier silences) away from "Scenes From a Marriage." "Couples Retreat," the new trouble-in-paradise comedy directed by Peter Billingsley in his feature-film debut, actually doesn't go too easy on the real relationship stuff. Like Vince Vaughn's similar "The Break-Up," it has an eye, and ear, for the way relationships fall apart terribly slowly and then all at once. What it lacks is a truly concentrated comedy punch, preferring instead to land a series of scattered jabs from the 16 arms of its eight leads.
Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell are a preppy, perfect power couple, except they can't conceive. Malin Akerman and Vaughn are dealing with their two new kids and barely have the time for anything else. Faizon Love, recently divorced, is kidding himself by dating Kali Hawk, who's pretty much just a kid. And Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis got married early when they faced the prospect of their daughter and are now counting out the clock until she splits off to college and they can split for good.
And so in the script (credited to Vaughn, Favreau and Dana Fox) we have a pretty deft portrait of four different marriages: the new parents, the can't-be-parents, the recent parents and the recently divorced. Bell and Bateman, desperate to work things out, want to go to a tropical resort's couples counseling event, said to work wonders, but can only afford it if they get the group rate. Figuring they'll play while their friends work, the other three couples sign up, but are informed by the island's couples guru Jean Reno and his majordomo Peter Serafinowicz (doing an early-Walken weirdness thing, and quite well) that, to get the group rate, they all have to do the couples workshop.
And while the three supposedly-fine couples demur, they, it turns out, could use a little fine-tuning. And this may be the best thing about "Couples Retreat": It has comedy around the marriages (and relationships) but it never treats the marriages and relationships as jokes. So while, yes, Reno explains how his teachings are based on a mix of "yoga, tai chi and 'The Art of War,'" we also get to see these characters as something close to real people in something close to crisis. (Bateman and Bell are the clear acting winners in this regard, delivering scenes of real affection and real sadness, with Vaughn and Akerman a close second; Love and Hawk's problems get solved a bit too tidily, and Favreau and Davis' a bit too broadly for any real acting to be required.)
But while the relationship material in "Couples Retreat" is handled with the same hard-nosed, open-eyed honesty as "The Break-Up," a lot of the supposedly funny bits in "Couples Retreat" aren't. A bit with a hard-bodied yoga instructor with very little modesty and no sense of personal space (Carlos Ponce, in what would have been a Hank Azaria role five or 10 years ago) isn't especially amusing. Favreau's motor-mouthed horndog ways also have a limited shelf life. And while having four couples in the mix means that "Couples Retreat" can explore many different kinds of trouble, it also means that the laughs get a little diluted by a slightly too-large scope and a slightly too-long running time.
But there are laughs in "Couples Retreat," like Vaughn being confounded by Akerman asking him to choose a finish for their kitchen cupboard handles, with options of "nickel, brushed nickel, chrome, or brushed chrome." Or how Love, told he has to do couples counseling, lapses into "Enter the Dragon" references: "And now we're on Han's island." But the final-act conclusions come a bit too easily, and a bit too swiftly, and the film has a completely mischosen final scene that, while it may hearken back to an earlier joke, abandons the eight central characters and leaves you feeling sour and unsatisfied, asking a rhetorical question of everyone involved: "Really, this is the best final scene you could think of? Really?"
"Couples Retreat" looks gorgeous, and has a bunch of fun people in it. But, as Steven Soderbergh noted when making "Ocean's Eleven," if there were a correlation between how much fun a movie is to make and how good it actually is, "Cannonball Run" would beat out "Citizen Kane" for the honor of greatest film ever. "Couples Retreat" has a great cast, a gorgeous setting and a well-balanced tone about the reality of relationships; it's when you watch the script unfold that you can see where this "Retreat" could have used a better plan of attack.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.