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Marital Trouble in Paradise

MOVIE REVIEW
Couples Retreat (2009)

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John Johnson/Universal Studios

The cast and crew of “Couples Retreat” would most likely defend their lackluster production with a simple, collective “You had to be there.” And who could blame them? Set amidst the bright, postcard-come-to-life scenery of Bora Bora, the comedy about marital errors must have been all-inclusive for those involved. There’s fancy cocktails and spas employed with attractive masseuses, snorkeling in crystal-clear waters and private cabanas. What’s missing, though, is anything resembling sharp wit. Passable at best, “Couples Retreat” — directed by actor and now first-time director, Peter Billingsley — coasts on the likability of its agreeable cast, an enormous advantage to have when your script is content with pushing comedy to its bare minimum. Seemingly fine with (at least) amusing themselves, the folks behind this just-there effort have essentially turned their own group vacation into a feature film. Too bad there’s no free drinks for the ticket buyers.

“Couples Retreat” is actually more intriguing as a drama than anything resembling a chuckler. The film’s premise — four couples on the rocks for uniquely-personal reasons head to a secluded resort known as Eden for six days, seven nights of relationship-repairing therapy — opens the door for poignancy, if managed properly. Screenwriters Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau (both of whom also star) and Dana Fox take the husband-and-wife dynamics of the four central couples admirably serious, especially the crumbling marriage of Jason Bateman’s uptight itinerary-lover and the wife (Kristen Bell) he suffocates with his by-the-book lifestyle. Mr. Vaughn, as a good-hearted father of two who’s oblivious to his spouse’s (Malik Akerman) attention needs, also handles the straight-faced moments well, giving Mr. Favreau — as a former high-school football stud who can’t stop looking at other women — the funnyman wheel. The majority of jokes that do work can be attributed to Mr. Favreau.

Then, unfortunately, there’s the ensemble’s fourth piece, the May-December romance of Faizon Love’s divorced character and his 20-year-old girlfriend (newcomer Kali Hawk). The designation of “token Black” is uncomfortable to award, yet here it’s a glaring no-brainer and also a starting point for the film’s lazy humor. Ms. Hawk, hopefully working with what the script gave her, exaggerates the young girlfriend’s ghetto slang and project-chick attitude to the point of farce; Mr. Love, for his part, is stricken with defending the purchase of an expensive motorcycle despite his meager bank account with “You wouldn’t understand, it’s a black thing” — a punchline that’d rest snugly in a Chris Rock post-lobotomy HBO special.

Although his one-liners rarely connect, Mr. Love avoids irritability by simply being himself — a harmlessly likable screen presence similar to the rest of his castmates. “Couples Retreat” is on cruise control when you know it could have been pedal to the metal considering the best of its creative team’s past. When a Fabio-type dressed in only a mankini leads the couples in a yoga session, the lone note of sexually-suggestive pose after sexually-suggestive pose is not only tiresome but frustrating. It’s hard to imagine that the scribes behind “Swingers” resorting to such banal gags.

One of the film’s few inspired bits involves Mr. Vaughn being nipped by a lemon shark, a benevolent scratch that he blows out of proportion. As he sees it, the pint-sized fish was “Jaws.” “Couples Retreat” jumps a shark as large as that of Steven Spielberg’s classic, though, during an overlong Guitar Hero showdown: slow-motion guitar solos, video-game graphics on the screen’s edge. You’ll wish that the theater provided a TiVo remote control to fast forward the gratuitous commercial. Don’t be surprised by the shamelessness; after all, vacations don’t pay for themselves.

COUPLES RETREAT

Opens on Oct. 9 in the United States and on Oct. 14 in Britain.

Directed by Peter Billingsley; written by Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau and Dana Fox; director of photography, Eric Edwards; edited by Dan Lebental; music by A. R. Rahman; production designer, Shepherd Frankel; produced by Mr. Vaughn and Scott Stuber; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Vince Vaughn (Dave), Jason Bateman (Jason), Jon Favreau (Joey), Faizon Love (Shane), Kristin Davis (Lucy), Malin Akerman (Ronnie), Kristen Bell (Cynthia), Kali Hawk (Trudy), John Michael Higgins (Therapist No. 1), Ken Jeong (Therapist No. 2), Tasha Smith (Jennifer) and Jean Reno (Marcel).

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