Couples Retreat is the feature-length directorial debut of Peter Bilingsley, who most will remember for his charming, iconic performance as Ralphie Parker in A Christmas Story. In the opening credits, Bilingsley promptly establishes the tone of the film with a montage of stock footage -- from the invention of cameras and recorded film to the present -- featuring silly poses of varied couples flashing by to an upbeat song. Bilingsley wants us to know that, if we have ever been in love, we're about to have a gas.
The film doesn't follow couples, per se; it follows archetypes. Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kirstin Bell) are obsessive-compulsives in a claustrophobic marriage. The two generate the contextual impetus for the film: the island retreat, wherein couples enjoy luxurious aquatic activities like jet skiing and, uh, marriage-saving therapy. A promise of levity is made in the first act, as they attempt to save their marriage by inviting their friends to this reputed miracle workers program. Meanwhile, Dave (Vince Vaughn) raises up very timely concerns about such a frivolous vacation in this tough economy.
These first 20 minutes offer splashes of genuine realism with a good balance of humor that actually works. But once the circle of friends' expectations of relaxation are dashed by the sobering realization that the therapy is in fact mandatory, the film loses any notion of balancing out the humor with the difficulties of married life and swiftly becomes a trite rom-com.
A recurring joke in the film is that Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) want to cheat on each other. Joey observes the bikini-clad residents of the island with a lecherous jaw drop, having to at one point restrain an audible "AOOOGAAA." The obviousness of both these failed marriages and the extreme repulsion to therapy exhibited by most of the couples broaches on tragedy if they weren't played so completely silly. It doesn't help that the women in this film are thin model types and the men are either oily muscle dudes or average comedians. Indeed, Couples Retreat quickly becomes a soup of genre conventions and clichés, relying more on set pieces -- a lewd yoga instructor and ghastly video game-looking C.G. shark attacks -- to provide humor in lieu of any cerebral examination of real-world relationships. Therapy is made into a zany romp that only loosely facilitates growth.
Bilingsley's direction feels very staccato, with each shot/reverse shot happening rapidly and constantly as we bounce from couple to couple in search of jokes. When we get to the island, there is a shot of girls in bikinis walking in slow motion toward the camera; the troubling part is that it's not intended as some sort of Baywatch satire. His direction is rife with these ridiculous conventions, and we do not see much beyond tight frames and close ups. And by the third act, which is built on a premise that would fit alongside 80s pre-pubescent feature lengths like Ski Lodge or a porno ("Lets go to the other resort where all the young sexy people are!"), Bilingsley finally attempts to examine the failings of the group's collective marriages, but does so in an instantaneous explosion of realizations and problems solved by sex and apologies. The most ridiculous resolution comes for Shane, played by Faizon Love: the husky divorcée battles throughout the entire film to keep up with his younger girlfriend, and when he finally sees her with younger men in the singles resort, he lets her go. Seconds later, his ex-wife arrives on the island (another bodacious babe to fit right into that motif) and declares that she has come back to her One True Love. It all feels tacked on by very loose threads.
As a whole, the film tries to extol the virtues of taking time to experience the world, to savor relationships in the hustle and bustle of modern life. And although it lacks any profound ruminations on relationships, the film provides genuine comedy and dollops of self-reflection. But in the end, Couples Retreat is just another lazy-afternoon movie to scrunch in between similarly sub par romantic comedies.