Couples Retreat shouldn’t be this smart. The film is, almost obviously, just an excuse for a bunch of Hollywood actors to take an extended vacation in an exotic location on the studio’s dime. It’s written by buddies Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, so it’s not hard to believe that they’d concoct an excuse to take a vacation together. And for the audience, most of the movie feels like a vacation. It’s a relaxing experience, as close as you can get to hanging out on the beaches of Tahiti without actually going there. Gazing at the beautiful blues and perfect female bodies which surround the movie’s flabby male cast is almost cathartic; it’s like watching a tank full of tropical fish as a means of lowering your blood pressure.
Far worse than the movie’s somewhat lazy intentions is the blatant product placement. They had to pay for this vacation somehow. Smack dab in the middle of the film is a lengthy and jarring scene which can only be explained as a five-minute commercial for Guitar Hero. It serves no purpose in the story and doesn’t fit anything that’s going on. I’m not even convinced that it’s directed by Peter Billingsly, who helmed the rest of the film. It feels like it fell out of a Toys R Us ad and it is without a doubt the lowest form of product placement I have ever seen in any movie.
Except I said this was smart, didn’t I? It’s not all smart and maybe smart is too strong a word. Yet it’s hard to escape the fact that in spite of all of the above, Couples Retreat actually has some fairly well-thought out insight into the problems people deal with in long term relationships. It lives up to its title. It is, product placement aside, the perfect movie for couples. Great scenery happens, lines are delivered by comfortably familiar actors who take you on a few quick forays into the kinds of realistic issues which may be plaguing your relationship, and then there’s a romantic ending by a waterfall. You’ll leave feeling de-stressed, squeezing your spouse’s hand as you head home for a cuddle before the babysitter drops off the kids.
It starts with friends, four couples of similar age and income status. Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell are married and having trouble. To save their relationship they need a trip to a specialty couples counselor, who runs a program for marriages in trouble on a far off island location. They can’t afford the course unless they get the group rate, so they strong-arm their friends into going along. They arrive and are immediately tortured. Each couple’s flaws are revealed and reasons for Faizon Love to go naked are concocted. The movie works best in its couples counseling scenes, in which each couple sits down with a therapist to work out their issues. Though the counselors in these sessions are played by people like The Hangover’s Dr. Ken, Couples Retreat seems to make a conscious decision to minimize the laughs and try thought provoking instead. Outside those sessions it’s sunshine and Vince Vaughn dealing with mildly amusing shark attacks, inside you’ll watch married people struggle to come to grips with the sort of stuff your marriage might be dealing with.
It’s a strange dynamic but one that balances out in the end. Couples Retreat is ridiculous and whorish, but the minds behind it are too sharp to simply leave it at that. It is exactly what it says it is: a couples retreat. Singles, stay on your side of the island, there’s nothing here for you.