One of the final shots of “Couples Retreat” is a toddler defecating into a display toilet at a home improvement store. This image perfectly sums up the filmmaking here. A classic Hollywood trainwreck, “Retreat” is without laughs or heart, with director Peter Billingsley taking a possibly experimental route by mounting a comedy without any identifiable humor. “Retreat” is dreadful, but to consider just how many gifted performers are here treading water makes the heart sick. Ralphie, how dare you.
Nearing divorce, Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) are hoping for a week-long getaway to the therapeutic island of Eden to engage in a marriage workshop, run by the enigmatic Marcel (Jean Reno). To help split the cost, Jason convinces married pals Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman), Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis), and Shane (Faizon Love) and his 20-year-old girlfriend Trudi (Kali Hawk), to join them in paradise. Once arrived, Eden reveals it’s not about jet-skis and buffets, but intense couples’ therapy, leaving the crew stunned and vulnerable to the resort’s probing methods of self-discovery.
Really, it’s shocking how unfunny this picture is. It seems like such a sure bet on the outside: Vaughn, Favreau, shimmering Bora-Bora locations. However, “Retreat” is a bust, a nearly laugh-free comedy written by Vaughn and Favreau (with help from Dana Fox) and handed to their pal, Billingsley, to mark his directorial debut. So much for favors from friends.
It’s easy to nail Billingsley to the wall for this misfire, and his pedestrian direction reveals his amateur status all too easily, with a clockwork routine of uncomfortable close-ups and sitcom effects to help him set the scene. The editing is uncommonly rough as well, looking as though the film was cut with a hacksaw. Billingsley is enormously sloppy here, and combined with an improv-heavy cast, “Retreat” often rambles itself into a coma, indulging the bursting cast until they’re rosy-cheeked and making Applebee’s references.
The characters are drawn thin and shrill, with the final cut favoring Dave and Ronnie’s story for no plausible reason. The Eden situations seem like crude Groundlings audience shout-outs, getting the cast into uncomfortable positions without any decent jokes to help elevate the emotional tempest; “Retreat” feels blindly made-up. It’s bad jazz, rambling and unfocused, and with so much comedic real estate in play here, the fact that the film never gets out of first gear is flabbergasting.
If you’re thinking to yourself, why make a comedy about bickering couples to begin with? You’re not alone. A strange premise that requires the audience to sit through long passages of characters whining and yelling, “Retreat” ultimately wants sympathy for the caricatures, hoping to impart lasting wisdom on marital commitment. It’s a nice sentiment, but fits awkwardly, especially on the likes of Joey and Lucy, who embark on a strange tango of infidelity that’s never successfully introduced, but the script lays on the horn as if it’s unearthed something profound.
Other subplots chase obvious routes of bedroom disinterest, dipping into flat-out dramatics here and there that make the film feel impossibly heavy. It’s bad enough that “Retreat” can’t deal a decent hand of jokes, but to care about these motormouth people armed with only a page and a half of reasonable backstory? Billingsley is dreaming.
The film’s indulgences also annoy, including a late-inning Guitar Hero duel where video game producer Dave challenges one of the Eden staff to a Billy Squire war. The sequence is embarrassing, with cheesy split-screen and strange “Bonanza” references to buffer the icky product placement whoredom factor that lingers long after the film ends.
It’s frustrating to watch “Retreat” sleepwalk around, assuming its very presence is enough to provide laughs. That’s a lazy way to make a movie. The cast deserves better. Billingsley deserves better. Heck, the insanely pristine beaches of Bora-Bora deserve a better big screen treatment than what the labored, ugly “Couples Retreat” submits. It’s a mess and a humorless one at that, making it one of the year’s most egregious missed opportunities.