As bad goes, “Couples Retreat” is not aggressively bad. It doesn’t strap on explosives, evade taxes or ply underage girls with champagne and Quaaludes. As far as I know, it doesn’t even litter. It is bad, however, and not just in that comedy-without-laughs way. The transgression extends deeper. It is a waste “ of potentially provocative material, of gifted comedic actors and, most egregiously, of its audience’s time.
It’s particularly disappointing from Vince Vaughn (“Four Christmases”) and Jon Favreau (“I Love You, Man”). The team that starred in the smart indie comedies “Swingers” (which Favreau wrote) and “Made” co-wrote “Couples Retreat,” but this latest picture has none of those earlier works’ shambling charm or wit. Instead, “Couples Retreat” scurries from faux sophistication to rote idiocy, with the result being a muddle of a muddle.
The story begins promisingly. Jason (Jason Bateman, “Extract”) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) are on the verge of divorce, their frayed nerves stemming from frustrations over their inability to conceive a baby. The couple wants to save their marriage by going to Eden, a tropical paradise that mixes marital counseling with fun in the sun. But Jason and Cynthia can only afford a group discount, which means they must coax their married friends into going, too.
Their reluctant fellow travelers eventually give in after being assured that they won’t have to participate in therapy sessions. The group includes Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman, “Watchmen”), doting parents and all-around normal folks; Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis, “Sex and the City”), who can’t stand one another; and recently divorced Shane (Faizon Love, “Idlewild”), who brings along his 20-year-old girlfriend (Kali Hawk, “Celebrity”) of two weeks. Not until they arrive on the island do they discover that the eccentric French “couple whisperer” who runs the place (Jean Reno, “The Pink Panther 2″) insists they all take part in the retreat.
That scenario has potential for scouring marriage dynamics, always fertile ground for brittle humor. But “Couples Retreat” goes flabby as soon as it has the chance to flex some muscle. A movie probing relationships first needs to invest in character, but the script offers only the broadest of brushstrokes. Dave is funny, Joey has a short fuse, and Jason is uptight. What else do you need to know?
As for the wives, let’s be charitable and say the filmmakers were likely distracted by their on-location shoot in Bora Bora. Akerman and Davis seem to be placeholders while their roles are presumably being fleshed out off-screen. As for Bell, one can only assume she was cast for how she looks in a bikini.
Between soft-headed insights on marriage (“Relationships are a two-way path, not a highway and a bike path”) and obvious physical gags (sexually charged yoga), director Peter Billingsley demonstrates an embarrassingly lead-footed sense of pace. If anyone keeps “Couples Retreat” occasionally afloat, it is Vaughn, whose rapid-fire delivery can make even a “Mr. Belvedere” reference sound fresh.
But Vaughn has his work cut out for him here. Some relationships are simply beyond help.