Marooned in Marriage Counseling

10/09/2009 4:00 AM |

Couples Retreat
Directed by Peter Billingsley

Couples Retreat, appropriately, opens with a chronological montage of stock footage of American couples from the 1950s to the present, from adolescent courtship to late-life companionship, from teenage passion to parenthood, which, sentimental and syrupy as it is, constitutes the most effective and well-executed passage in the whole film. This is also the only instance when Peter Billingsley’s sloppily mismatched visuals make sense. Thereafter the film’s poor craftsmanship, both aesthetic and narrative, regularly overwhelms whatever momentum and camaraderie it occasionally musters.

Frustratingly, Couples Retreat has all the ingredients of a great sex farce, with four couples in quickly crumbling relationships trapped in marriage counseling on a beautiful tropical party island with a staff of eccentric zen and yoga masters. Billingsley and co-starring co-writers Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau (along with Dana Fox) manage maybe a half-dozen big laughs in what is supposed to be a romantic ensemble comedy. In doing so they push a matrimony-no-matter-what relationship policy on their middle-class suburbanites despite how hatefully similar (OCD-afflicted micromanagers Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) or mutually hateful (Favreau and Kristin Davis) they are. Even the eccentric line-up of foreign actors and comedians working the island resort—including guru Marcel (Jean Reno), Tantric yoga instructor Salvadore (Carlos Ponce) and smiling smart alec Stanley (Peter Serafinowicz)—come up empty, left to use their accents as punch lines when the writers constantly fail to deliver. To be fair, two resident therapists played by Ken Jeong and John Michael Higgins are very funny, but only appear in brief, over-edited couch sessions.

This tropical relationship repair facility is called Eden Resort, after all, and the name’s Biblical implications are deeply felt. Strangers are to be laughed at and ignored, their knowledge treated as poison (or, at least, parody); couples cling to relationships that should have been killed years ago for fear of expulsion from the lush compound; the resort’s supposedly seedy (but not really) other side, Eden East, promises a hell of a party. Like the primordial couple, our protagonists are drawn in broad, caricatured strokes that nobody dares to fill out, except, surprisingly, the African-American divorcee Shane (Faizon Love). Alongside the perpetual fighters (Favreau and Davis), nerve-wracking nit-pickers (Bateman and Bell) and lazy homebodies (Vaughn and Malin Akerman), Love’s sad sugar-daddy—with his bouncy twenty-year-old rebound girl Trudy (Kali Hawk)—is easily the film’s most complex and heartfelt character.

Admittedly, that’s not saying much. But for a movie so superficially concerned with providing its characters with the markers of white middle-class success, it’s telling that the most compelling problems are those of an obese black man in the midst of an identity crisis. He, at least, takes something away from his time in paradise (his ex-wife, as it happens), while the other couples return to the real world with an Edenic blessing on their status quo existences. You, meanwhile, won’t find anything nearly so enlightening, comforting or even enjoyable in Couples Retreat.

Opens October 9

2 Comment

  • Hmm, the getaway in “Antichrist” is also called Eden; perhaps the two would make a instructive double feature?

  • That would certainly be an interesting evening of cinema. Of course, the closest “Couples Retreat” comes to genital mutilation is when a small shark brushes Vince Vaughn’s leg. In the film’s kinkiest moment, Kali Hawk drips wax on Faizon Love’s stomach (“It’s hot!”). Something tells me that “Antichrist” would come off as shock therapy by comparison.