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The West Wing
Directed by Peter Billingsley
Starring: Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Malin Akerman, Jason Bateman, Kristin Davis, Jean Reno, Ken Jeong, Kristin Bell
Review by Gabrielle Domingues
Four couples settle into a tropical-island resort for a vacation. While one of the couples is there to work on their marriage, the others fail to realize that participation in the resort's therapy sessions is not optional.
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I have participated in couples counseling. It’s awkward, and stressful, and unsurprisingly fairly devoid of any emotions resembling amusement…. What humor there is is a byproduct of the aforementioned awkwardness and stress, a survival tactic between the two who are compelled to weather such an experience. If you’re lucky, a laugh or two is garnered from a frank new observation, or sentimental recollection. All this is to say that marriage counseling is far from obvious fodder for comedic escapades. The lack of humor for the participants is mirrored in anyone who has to witness or hear about said experience of theirs – if anything, usually your therapist or friend’s laughter is of the “at you” not “with you” you variety. Just maybe there’ll be some “been there, sister/brother” empathetic amusement of recognition from a third party; but that is usually the strong, silent, knowing kind of humor – not chuckles or guffaws.
So, what to make of a situational comedy, the conceit of which revolves on the scenario of troubled (knowing or unknowing) couples facing their fissures and failings? This is the premise of Couples Retreat, the new comedy (as marketing hypnotizes you to believe) feature written by and starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. Who’s the target demographic here – happily marrieds, looking for some schadenfreude? Unhappily marrieds, looking for some commiseration? Singles who… remember Vaughn when he wasn’t bloated? Like the scenery? Couldn’t get into Paranormal Activity? Being lovelorn in paradise hit all the right notes in Forgetting Sarah Marshall; but revisiting this terrain with married couples – even with (or despite) four of them – is treading a grey area as thorny as “Does this dress make me look fat?”
And this is the inherent flaw in Couples Retreat. The bulk of the story deals with the flaws, or at best challenges of marriage, which is simply not as amusing as distressed singles. Children are at stake. Mortgages are at stake. [Vaughn’s The Brake-Up had the real estate issue, but no kids.] The very core of compromised dreams and self-image are what’s at stake. HA HA HA, am I right people? The counseling and confrontational scenes in this film, while written and directed ironically for comedic effect, ring uncomfortably (at least for this viewer) of real, non-gimmick issues. For that reason I was in fact engaged in these fleeting moments of relative truth, and I credit the naturalist dialogue and performances for this. This is an unexpected pleasing seashell on an otherwise littered shore…. I mean, I came for escapist laughs – perhaps escaping an unhappy evening at home with hubby, for all the studio knows! And as has been uttered in oh so many couples counseling sessions, for real: This is not what I signed up for.
There are sporadic laughs throughout the almost two-hour run time of Couples Retreat, don’t get me wrong. But, like a convenience store bouquet of carnations on your anniversary, they smack of desperation. Is the image of a spandex-clad Fabio-esque yoga instructor pulsating his buttocks in the superiorly disdainful face of Jason Bateman funny? I’m only human: Yes it is. Does this tone jive when interplayed with high school-sweetheart parents Favreau and Kristen Davis (Sex and the City) hate and infidelity? Um… pass the butter dear. The tone and pacing of this film is so inconsistent, the audience is left as uncomfortable and distracted as being at an actual therapy session. The only true relief, like an illicit extramarital fling, comes in the form of some commanding, unconventional foreign men…. Peter Serafinowicz as the resort host, Jean Reno as the love guru, and Carlos Ponce as the mankini yoga instructor are the only obvious, and refreshingly welcome, comic relief in the proceedings. Like the friends that unhappy couples always want around, you feel like entreating “Don’t leave yet” in each scene they’re in.
This is truly a waste of such a talented and attractive primary cast…. “You can do better” comes to mind. You get the sense, however, that they really enjoyed themselves in the making of Couples Retreat. Indeed, hanging out with friends while getting a tan is what fuels the tourism industry – or at least, spring break. But giving up one’s time and money to simply witness others enjoy themselves at your expense is not an inherently positive thing; again, in that respect, this movie is just like a session with a therapist. Compromise is not always the answer…. Couples Retreat sought a sandy middle ground, somewhere between Swingers and Revolutionary Road, and unsurprisingly ended up all wet. Couples Retreat