[Screen It]

(2009) (Vince Vaughn, Malin Akerman) (PG-13)

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Comedy: Four couples learn about themselves and each other when they vacation together at a tropical paradise where only one set is willing to go through the highly regimented relationship workshops.
Dave (VINCE VAUGHN) and Ronnie (MALIN AKERMAN) are like many a middle-aged married couple in trying to balance work and raise kids. They're mostly complacent with their arrangement, even if she isn't happy that he doesn't seem to care one way or another about her home remodeling choices.

They're better off than their friends, however, such as Shane (FAIZON LOVE) who's divorced from Jennifer (TASHA SMITH) and is now dating 20-year-old Trudy (KALI HAWK). High school sweethearts Joey (JON FAVREAU) and Lucy (KRISTIN DAVIS) can't stand each other, but it's Jason (JASON BATEMAN) and Cynthia (KRISTEN BELL) who've announced they're likely going to get divorced, mostly stemming from their inability to conceive.

Realizing the strain that's put on their relationship, they're willing to give it one last shot, and want to attend a relationship program at Eden, a tropical resort split into two islands where singles mingle on one and couples examine and try to invigorate their relationships on the other.

The only problem is that they can't afford the program, but could in a group rate if they can get their friends to go along. Promised that they won't have to attend the workshops and such, the others agree, and soon they're in the company of host Stanley (PETER SERAFINOWICZ) who calmly informs all of them that by attending, they must go through the program.

Accordingly, they're introduced to "couples whisperer" instructor Marcel (JEAN RENO), various therapists who work with them individually, and uninhibited yoga instructor Salvadore (CARLOS PONCE). As the sessions proceed, the various couples learn a thing or two about themselves and each other.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
By now, many people are familiar with the term "jump the shark." Based on the infamous "Happy Days" episode where Fonzie literally does what the phrase states (on water skis, no less), it's basically a way of stating that something has outlived its usefulness and is going to extremes to try to keep people interested.

In the comedy "Couples Retreat," there's a sequence that truly does feature actual sharks circling Vince Vaughn (shown ad nauseam in the film's trailer and commercials), one of the many stars in this loose and modified rip-off of "The Four Seasons" from a few decades back.

Yet, that's not the absolute nadir of the viewing experience, nor does that apply to the similarly advertising-spoiled sequences of a buff yoga instructor (in nothing but tight shorts) doing some improper stretching techniques with both the ladies and the men, while the one obese guy (Faizon Love) is forced to strip down in front of his friends (resulting in the obligatory big bare butt view designed to evoke cries of "ewww" from viewers).

No, it's actually a sequence late in the film when Vaughn's character (interchangeable with just about every other one he's played recently), has, of all things that could have been utilized for laughs, a "Guitar Hero" video game challenge with the Mr. Roark type island retreat host played by Peter Serafinowicz. To make matters worse, those involved apparently thought adding a western gunslinger motif (including tough guy genre talk and the jingle-jangle of spurs that aren't present) to the note shoot-out would be funny.

It's a bizarre addition to a mess of a movie that feels as if it was written and directed by committee where the participants just threw ideas out and didn't particularly care if they worked on their own or added anything to the overall story. To be accurate, there's only one director -- Peter "A Christmas Story" Billingsley, making his feature film debut behind the camera -- and three scribes -- Vaughn, his buddy Jon Favreau and Dana Fox -- and they collectively manage to elicit a few laughs here and there, thus saving this from being one of the worst films of the year, but that's not saying much.

Following in the footsteps of its 1981 predecessor (starring Alan Alda and Carol Burnett, among others), the story here is about some middle-aged couples -- in various stages of relationship satisfaction -- who go on vacation together, only to discover things about themselves and each other.

Like that film, this one tries to balance comedy with some more substantial drama, but similarly only touches the surface of some deeper, if not particularly novel issues. Yet, it feels shoehorned (like the "Guitar Hero" bit) into what otherwise seemingly wants to be a naughty comedy, only adding to the pic's dichotomy and general unevenness.

It certainly doesn't help that the four main male characters (Vaughn, Favreau, Love and Jason Bateman) aren't particularly likable. One could say the same about the characters in the "Seinfeld" sitcom, but at least they had charming qualities and benefitted from an impeccable chemistry, comedic timing, and some truly funny writing. Little, if any of that is present for these guys, thus making their attempts at generating laughs (or pathos) all the more irritating.

The ladies fare a little better. Okay, that really just pertains to Malin Akerman playing Vaughn's wife, and Kristen Bell (at least until the second half) as Favreau's long-suffering spouse, while Kristin Davis is relegated to running around in bikinis and Kali Hawk borders on an offensive stereotype of a young black woman.

Among the supporting players, Jean Reno plays the "couples whisperer" (that being about the only funny thing about his part), Serafinowicz does the potentially creepy Ricardo Montalban bit without taking that far enough, and Carlos Ponce plays up the sexually aggressive and uninhibited yoga instructor part, but can't manage to generate additional laughs once those one-note characteristics are established.

A smattering of occasionally decent laughs manage to temper one's desire to throw something at the screen or just exit in the first half, but everything completely falls apart in the second. If only some jumping sharks had managed to take out a number of the annoying characters, then we might have had something. Nothing more than cinematic chum, "Couples Retreat" is akin to vacationing with annoying pairings of various men and women where you can't wait for it to be over. The film rates as a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed October 6, 2009 / Posted October 9, 2009

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