There appears to be something about the idea of a resort called Eden that brings out the absolute worst in moviemakers. In 1994, Garry Marshall made an execrable comedy called “Exit to Eden,” in which a couple of cops traveled to an S&M fantasy camp by that name. Now four couples go to another Eden designed to repair damaged relationships, and the result is almost equally dreadful. “Couples Retreat” is a loud, crude, dreary misfire that feels like it was cobbled together from material cut from other lousy comedies.
But the picture actually comes from Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, and it suffers by comparison to their breakthrough 1996 indie hit “Swingers,” which it tries to emulate in terms of rapid-fire dialogue but doesn’t come close to matching. The earlier movie had its flaws, but at least under Doug Liman’s rat-a-tat direction it exhibited youthful energy. This one, directed sluggishly by erstwhile child actor Peter Billingsley (“A Christmas Story”), is like a crotchety, verbose, humorless older version of “Swingers”—the story of those bachelor types approaching middle-age. It still tries to be edgy but is unconscionably lead-footed, with much of the dialogue consisting of people screaming out lines that are supposed to be funny but fall depressingly flat. And though it wants to be sweet, it winds up clumsily coarse—how else could one describe a picture that starts with a joke about a young boy urinating and ends with another about him defecating? The kid (Colin Baiocchi) may be cute as a button, but the gags are ugly as sin.
The lame plot starts with one couple—obsessive Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell)—contemplating divorce because their marriage is floundering over a failure to “get pregnant.” Jason pressures his friends to accompany them to a luxury resort advertised to help couples in trouble through the ministrations of guru-like “couples whisperer” Marcel (Jean Reno), because then they’ll get a group rate he can afford. So enlisted to go along are happily married Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman), unhappily married Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis), and divorced Shane (Faizon Love) and his brazen twenty-something girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk). While Jason and Cynthia intend to use the place’s counseling services, the others are there for fun in the sun; but they soon learn that they’re all compelled to submit to Marcel’s crazy regimen, overseen by his supercilious henchman Ctanley (Peter Serafinowicz—the quality of humor is indicated by his identifying himself as “Stanley with a C”).
What follows is all too predictable. Under Marcel’s idiotic techniques, which literally have everybody swimming with sharks, and the prodding of their oddball therapists (John Michael Higgins, Ken Jeung, Charlotte Cornwall and Amy Hill), the relationships of all the couples deteriorate, with Dave and Ronnie taking the hardest hit. And before long the eight stars are shouting and pouting at one another in excruciatingly long, laborious, positively sour dialogue scenes that fail to produce any laughs. And as if Marcel, Ctanley and those therapists weren’t weird enough, there’s also a sleazily sexy yoga instructor named Salvadore (Carlos Ponce) who likes to dress in extremely revealing swim trunks (or nothing at all) and demonstrate unorthodox moves on the women as their hubbies look on. (Ponce is so gruesomely unfunny that at first you think he’s Hank Azaria.) And on the other side of the island there’s a wild singles’ resort that Joey in particular wants to visit.
It’s there that the plot culminates in a finale that’s peculiarly flat, filled as it is with the most outrageous implausibilities—even Shane’s ex-wife suddenly shows up!—and unexplained reversals of attitude. This is one of those comedies that saves the worst for last, and since what’s gone before has already been awful, that’s really saying a lot.
Under Billingsley’s overly permissive direction (he’s apparently a buddy of Vaughn’s—which probably explains how he got the gig), the cast are at their very worst. Vaughn and Favreau just do their usual loudmouth to ever-decreasing effect, and Bateman his customary repressed bit, which works no better here than in the recent “Extract.” The overweight Love is used for gross comic effect, undergoing a series of humiliations that are tasteless as well as unfunny. The women, on the other hand, are given short shrift and, with the exception of the screeching Hawk, come off as pretty anonymous. Vernon Vaughn—presumably Vince’s father—plays the grandpa who babysits Dave and Ronnie’s two kids while their parents go on their vacation. It’s nice that the actor feels such a familial tie, but Vernon looks like a nice retired guy who shouldn’t have been invited in front of the camera.
Visually the picture has a glassy, overbright look, courtesy of cinematography by Eric Edwards that doesn’t do justice to the attractive locations.
At the end of “Couples Retreat,” Marcel gives Dave and Robbie a statue of what he’s identified as their “animal spirit”—an ass. That certainly reflects everybody associated with the making of the movie, but anybody who chooses to suffer through it will probably come out thinking that it applies to him, too.