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A good idea for a sophisticated comedy lurks within the latest Jon Favreau-Vince Vaughn collaboration, “Couples Retreat,” but the filmmakers lack the courage of their convictions. So the payoff is mixed at best. The problem might lie in that word “sophisticated.” The current trends in film comedies are raunch and juvenilia, the very antithesis of sophistication.
When Favreau and Vaughn came to everyone’s attention more than a dozen years ago with “Swingers,” they seemed to have the knack for making a guy movie that was both hip and empathetic about men’s sexual insecurities. But the two don’t quite reclaim that territory in “Retreat,” which could very well be a follow-up to that tale of randy twentysomething males about town, now married and experiencing varying degrees of marital stress.
Boxoffice potential is difficult to judge. Normally, a film involving either or both actors-writers-producers and (in Favreau’s case) a director has strong commercial appeal. But the marital issues raised might puzzle or distract younger fans expecting sexual tease and potty humor.
In fact, Favreau and Vaughn suffer from the same distraction. There is sexual tease and potty humor here, the latter involving Vaughn’s young son, and it’s very funny. The sex stuff works less well and feels out of place among married people trying to work through legitimate issues couples face in real life. So the script the two wrote with fellow comedy writer Dana Fox gets pulled in opposite directions.
The idea is to send four couples off to an island paradise that serves as a retreat for couples experiencing relationship woes. One couple (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) is contemplating divorce.
The anchor couple, Vaughn and Malin Akerman, is a well-adjusted pair with kids, friends and busy lives. Another couple, Favreau and Kristin Davis, are more dysfunctional than they might realize, and the fourth “couple” barely qualifies as such. Faizon Love is newly divorced and has agreed to go along with his 20-year-old girlfriend, Kali Hawk, whom he has just met.
The other three couples have come along as a favor to Bateman and Bell because this gives them a cut-rate deal at the island resort (shot in French Polynesia). But the imperious couples guru (Jean Reno) insists that everyone must participate or they can all leave with refunds. Predictably, once the shrinks and relationship experts go to work, no one’s marriage is safe.
The best sections of the film deal with Vaughn and Akerman since it represents a critique of the relationship industry that is determined to justify its existence in finding problems even if none exists. The most problematic in comedic terms involves Favreau and Davis. No week at a couples retreat is going to solve their myriad problems.
Because the movie can’t get stalled in therapy sessions, it does venture into the island for forced situation comedy involving a shark attack, an unlikely yoga session and a body massage where mixed signals result in an embarrassing male arousal. The real problem, though, is that the movie can’t decide how seriously it wants to take its characters and their conflicts.
Producer-turned-director Peter Billingsley wisely turns the movie over to his talented cast. He and the writers can be faulted, however, for emphasizing the male characters over the women even if the title alone would seem to dictate more even-handed portrayals.
Tech credits are solid, with the film repping the American debut of Indian superstar film composer A. R. Rahman. His is an efficient though relatively unmemorable job, the only hint of his Indian roots coming in the almost superfluous sequences involving Reno’s “couples whisperer.”
Opens: Friday, Oct. 9 (Universal)
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