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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


There is a certain type of movie that makes me wonder if its makers actually cared about telling a good story or if they all just cared about taking a paid vacation. Club Paradise, After the Sunset, Fool’s Gold and now Couples Retreat all fall into that category. There’s no doubt from a viewing that everyone involved had a great time making the picture and romping around in a tropical setting. And while that’s wonderful for them, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are having a good time. Couples Retreat is like watching somebody’s boring vacation videos, except that they’re filled with big stars.

The cast of Couples Retreat has more fun making it than you will watching it.
The premise involves four couples who go together to an island resort to participate in a relationship-building seminar. Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) are about to call off their eight year marriage. They view the resort as their last chance to hold it together, and convince the others to come for support. Joey and Lucy (Jon Favreau and Kristen Davis) have been unhappily married for a long time but present an image of happiness for the sake of their teenage daughter. Shane (Faizon Love) is depressed after his wife left him, so he has begun dating Trudy (Kali Hawk), a woman half his age with whom he cannot keep up. Then there’s Dave and Ronnie (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman), who think they’re happily married but may have more problems than they realize.

Aside from Jason and Cynthia, the others are just there to have fun. They’re shocked to learn that being on the island requires mandatory participation in a variety of kooky “couples’ skill building” exercises. The guru of the resort, Marcel (Jean Reno), is an ethereal, New Age-y goofball. This follows the long-standing movie rule than anybody who’s a guru in any field must automatically be ethereal, New Age-y, and a goofball. I suppose I don’t need to tell you that most of the couples resist the treatment, only to discover that Marcel’s wacky ways - surprise! - actually work.

Couples Retreat is not a very smart movie about relationships. The issues the characters deal with may have some basis in reality, but they are not dealt with realistically. For a comedy like this to work, there needs to be some level of identification. We need to understand why these marriages are in trouble. That doesn’t happen. The characters have sitcom problems, and the solutions to them are even more sitcom-ish. A good movie about relationships – think When Harry Met Sally or (500) Days of Summer - goes in depth in showing us the good and the bad. We get a sense of the dynamic between the couples, so that whether they stay together or break apart, we understand why. Couples Retreat, on the other hand, suggests that there’s no problem too severe that it can’t be fixed through a sappy, heartfelt speech or clearing up some sort of screwball misunderstanding. The picture even stoops so low as to throw in a complete Deus ex machina (a completely contrived, pull-something-out-of-its-ass coincidence) for one of the characters. When it takes a cosmic miracle to create a happy ending, the film is not earning the emotional impact it’s hoping for.

This is all really too bad because the first 20 minutes are hilarious, containing some undeniable big laughs. When the characters get to the island, that’s where I was expecting the comedy to really launch into the stratosphere. Instead, it’s where Couples Retreat generally stops being funny altogether. I wanted to see these people humorously analyzing and trying to fix their marriages; instead, the plot keeps hitting the same note over and over and over. We get it – most of them don’t want to be on the island, and they don’t see any value to Marcel’s methods, even as their situations grow more complicated. After a while, I found the movie wearing on my nerves with its repetitiveness. The laugh factor is not helped by the fact that any even remotely funny bit has been completely given away in the previews.

If it were not for the cast, I’d probably rank this as one of the year’s worst films. They at least make it watchable with their energetic and likeable performances. The screenplay sucks – which is odd since Vaughn and Favreau co-wrote it – yet the actors work tirelessly to pump some life into things.

Couples Retreat has lots of talented people in it. The movie looks pretty. It may make you want to vacation at an island resort. As a piece of entertainment, though, something is missing. A great comedy could be made from this premise – one that was smart, and incisive, and identifiable. This one is none of those things. Maybe everyone in the production felt that three months filming in paradise would be enough to amuse us. If so, they were wrong.

( out of four)

Couples Retreat is rated R for sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.

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