Vince Vaughn may quite possibly be the last remaining raunch-comedy superstar who hasn't acquiesed to the R rating. In an increasingly graphic climate, in which the likes of Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith have pushed well beyond the PG-13 and in many cases are inching past the formerly iron-clad limits of the R (even inappropriate PG-13 raunch king Adam Sandler has relented to the R a couple times recently), Vaughn's films have remained content to operate in a (slightly) tamer environment. In the last few years alone, The Break-Up, Four Christmases, and now Couples Retreat -- three movies that appeared destined for R territory -- have been released in a watered-down teen-friendly format. Why? Could be box office, could be fear of audience run-off, but more than any other reason, especially in the case of this new film, that it's because Vaughn has grown-up instincts but can't muster the guts to produce fully grown-up material.
Couples Retreat is a film that would have benefitted from having the freedom to be an R movie, not because it's necessary to add any bonus "dirty" material, though that almost certainly would've been one side effect, but very simply because a higher rating would have afforded the filmmakers -- most specifically writer Jon Favreau -- a license to be more honest about relationships. It's common knowledge to the point of being cliched that marriage is simultaneously the most monumental and most difficult of human enterprises, but it is the tiny intricacies, the subtle nuances that makes the experience so profound. Watching Couples Retreat, I feel confident that Favreau understands those nuances, and disappointed that he failed to communicate them in any form other than punchy cartoon.
Favreau's original script was then turned over to Vaughn and Dana Fox (who gave us last year's hellatious What Happens in Vegas), and after a certain number of tweaks, this is the film now released in theaters: a comedy about four couples, each with a variety of problems, who somehow find the time to abandon their lives at the drop of a hat and go on a special retreat, where they are forced after an hour of goofy pratfalls (many of them funny, but lacking in substance) to confront those problems and decide their fate. The actors -- among them Jason Bateman, Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Faizon Love, and of course, Vaughn and Favreau -- are all good, but their stories overlap to such a degree that we never really get a chance to connect with any of them. Vaughn and Akerman take center stage as the couple who appears to be totally happy and in love, and it takes 90 minutes for the movie to arrive at the decision that they really don't have any problems whatsoever. Favreau and Davis play the most interesting couple, but their story is presented with such a surface-skimming lack of complexity that the characters essentially become punchlines. All of these characters overlap each other to the point of complete disinterest, most specifically Love's bumbling divorcee with a gold-digging girlfriend, whose story might not have fit in even in a better version of this film.
Couples Retreat is the directorial debut of Peter Billingsley (ya know, from A Christmas Story), and while it was nice of Vaughn and Favreau to throw the guy a bone and give him a script to direct, the material would have been better served with Favreau behind the camera (but after finishing one grueling Iron Man picture and prepping another, the guy probably wanted a break). But in a film with this many obvious script-level issues, the director is the least of its problems. Those screenplay issues are unfortunate, because this movie does mark a move toward maturity for Vaughn, who still has great sarcastic timing but has added a nuanced straight-man quality that serves him well here. Had Vaughn and Favreau decided during the writing process to push this movie into tougher, more realistic territory, it would have been a hugely surprising film. As it currently stands, it is a funny, likable trifle of a movie. These guys are capable of more...and I look forward to seeing how they move forward next time.