[9 October 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Couples Retreat begins as if it has an idea in its head. Over images of ostensibly old-style love, in which couples across decades date and smile, the soundtrack delivers “Modern Love,” mostly the chorus, in which the phrase “modern love” is repeated. The verse, of course, is more complicated, raising questions about all kinds of love, secular and spiritual, for instance, “God and man: no confessions. / God and man: no religion. / God and man: I don’t believe in modern love.”
If only the film that follows was even half so audacious and fun and perverse. Alas. Couples Retreat is about as dreary as a romantic comedy can be. You cite Bowie and come up with jokes about kids busted while peeing and men busted while masturbating? That’s the best you can do?
The premise for Couples Retreat is prosaic dressed up as topical-lite. Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell, revisiting, and not in a good way, Sarah Marshall) are having trouble, and so they decide their only hope is a week on a vacation island, advertised as “Disneyland for adults,” plus counseling sessions. They’re desperate, you see, which is apparently why they think it’s okay to ask their coupled friends to pitch in for a package deal—a request made via a powerpoint presentation. Plainly, said friends have no business saying yes. But then the movie would be over and wouldn’t that be sad? “I’ve never asked you for anything,” Jason whines to his best friend Dave (Vince Vaughn), who somehow convinces his wife Ronnie (Malin Akerman) to go along.
Arriving at the “state of the art spa,” Eden East, the group is greeted by anonymous brown-skinned beauties and Sctanley-spelled-with-a-C (Peter Serafinowicz), a poofty Brit installed so Dave can feel manly by comparison. He gets a little help in the disdaining department from former high school quarterback Joey (Jon Favreau) (married to former cheerleader Lucy [Kristen Davis]) and Shane (Faizon Love). Recently divorced, he’s now miserably trying to keep up with 20-year-old Trudy (Kali Hawk); as Ronnie cattily explains, he met Trudy the mall, where she was working at Foot Locker. Shane himself is introduced on the phone at a motorcycle showroom, begging Dave to co-sign so he can impress the neck-rolling girl who calls him “Daddy.” Needless to say, this is a romance the film will not treat nicely.
Just when Dave, Joey, and Joey are about to tire of skewering Sctanley’s snooty affect, they meet “couples whisperer” Marcel (Jean Reno). Each morning he engages the marrieds (and Shane and Trudy) in “exercises,” like stripping to their underwear in order to “own their bodies.” This leads to tedious anxiety about the boxerless Shane’s exposed “junk,” as well as a predictable lineup of lumpy men and well-toned women. The logic here is both familiar and excruciating, as the wives must choose between incessant non-options. Will Lucy stay with bitter Joey or find pleasure with self-loving dry-humper yoga instructor Salvadore (Carlos Ponce, lifting from Hank Azaria in America’s Sweethearts)? Will Cynthia stay with the scarily rigid Jason (it’s some kind of trick when a film can make Bateman look unsubtle)? And oh dear will Ronnie finally see that Dave will always be an insufferable 11-year-old?
The girls’ devotion to their mates is as annoying as it is formulaic: they’re romantic comedic heroines, and so it is their lot to smile and nod and feel fortunate when the boys cast glances in their direction. As the men discuss their very narrow issues (“Is the highlight reel considered cheating?” wonders Dave), it becomes obvious that it doesn’t much matter how they come to a form of self-consciousness or perform something like sensitivity toward their wives. The film is fundamentally about men feeling appreciated. It’s not modern at all.