"Couples Retreat" is a pleasant, undemanding, middle-of-the-road comedy, and really, were you expecting anything else? If you're looking for plot, narrative intricacy or layers of subtle characterization, you're barking up the wrong palm tree. This is a movie about four amiable couples, their low-level relationship woes, and the sunny South Pacific getaway that makes everything all better. It's two hours of hammock time for your mind. There are worse ways to spend time.
Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman and Faizon Love are Chicago buddies whose marriages are respectively running on empty, on the rocks, hanging by a thread, and toast. So that he and wife Kristen Bell can afford a Bora Bora resort's world-class marriage counseling, Bateman sells his friends on the idea of chipping in for a luxury vacation at an unbeatable group rate.
The other couples are focused on the resort's hot tubs and four-star restaurants. They don't understand how much baggage they've brought until they land on the island, where counseling turns out to be mandatory.
Jean Reno is the island's guru-in-chief, a renowned "couples whisperer." This sensitive fellow requires guests to get up before sunrise, disrobe on the beach and perform suggestive yoga exercises with a buff, shockingly limber instructor. Couple therapists pick apart the visitors' relationship shortcomings, expose long-nursed grievances, and the friends realize they're unhappier than they ever knew. The guys bond with the guys over booze and video games; the women empathize with the women in heart-to-hearts. You know, Venus and Mars and all that.
The men are endearing goofballs, the wives are more grounded but interchangeable. Malin Akerman ("Watchmen") plays Vaughn's wife and Kristin Davis ("Sex and the City") is Favreau's, but their characters are as alike as two brands of designer water. That might be the point, that they've filtered away their essence through decades of compromise. Love's new squeeze, a materialistic 20-year-old fly girl, is a broad stereotype energetically played by Kali Hawk.
Peter Billingsley (Ralphie from "A Christmas Story") directs the film in a matter-of-fact way. Most of the film's gags are as obvious as clown shoes, but in the right context clown shoes can make you snicker. There is a ticklish gag about a 5-year-old making mischief in a home center showroom, a prickly cameo from John Michael Higgins as a passive-aggressive therapist, and several good scenes involving Vaughn's terror at snorkeling with harmless lemon sharks.
The male stars' schlubby physiques -- as one of the staff tactfully puts it, "dormant muscles" -- are regularly displayed for comic effect. There are slightly risqué jokes involving hand lotion, male nudity and masseurs. Whenever sex rears its lovely head, the characters get flustered and act ridiculous, so, 10 points for realism. The story is piecemeal, and it takes a while to tidy up all its business with so many actors running around, but it kept me smiling throughout.
The film's heartwarming theme is that even when a partnership has devolved into bickering and boredom, there's still something worth fighting for, and a little 11th-hour soul-searching can always save the day. It's a slight but sweet coming-of-age story for middle-aged couples.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186