'Couples Retreat' (Universal Pictures)

Sometimes it feels good to get your buttons pushed. Couples Retreat shamelessly trots out a stable of tired old nags and magically transforms them into shining young thoroughbreds by the time they reach the finish line. To stir more creaky metaphors into the mix, Couples Retreat reminds me of an Old World grandmother, happily offering up the same old recipe with gentle but insistent persuasion, urging you to "eat, eat!" And you end up eating far more than you ever thought you would, because old recipes taste really good when fresh ingredients are used.

With Couples Retreat, the filmmakers gently but persistently prod, saying "Laugh, laugh!" and you end up laughing far more than expected. The set-up feels familiar: four couples, all at different stages of their relationships, go on an island retreat intending to have fun in the sun, but instead are forced to undergo counseling. In the process, they discover new truths about themselves, everyone laughs, everyone has "a moment." The End. Roll credits. Except that this time, the premise doesn't give away the major pleasures of the movie.

That's because longtime friends Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau collaborated on the sly, brutally frank, and funny script with Dana Fox, creating a solid framework that allows the performers breathing space to do their thing. Vaughn, Favreau, Jason Bateman, and Faizon Love play the men; Malin Akerman (in her best performance to date), Kristin Davis, Kristen Bell, and Kali Hawk are their romantic partners. Jean Reno is a mystical "couples whisperer." Old Vaughn / Favreau accomplice Peter Billingsley makes his feature directorial debut. What really ties everything together is crack comic timing, and a willingness to embrace warmly some of the colder, less pleasant truths about relationships.



In a broad sense, it reminds me of The Break-Up, which is high praise in my book. Vaughn contributed to the story and produced that picture as well, which also featured Favreau, Bateman, and John Michael Higgins, who here plays a therapist. With acerbic wit, it depicted how quickly one heated argument could bring long-simmering resentments to a boil, dissecting a relationship between a live-in couple who appeared to be happy and settled. Things were not quite as rosy as they appeared, in part because they'd never really come to grips with their differences.

Couples Retreat is more interested in a holiday version of that tale, leaving behind the deep-seated anger and bitter betrayals in favor of superficial good times and throwback jokes about therapists. You almost expect to hear one of the guys complain about the "ol' ball and chain." Despite the cheerier facades, however, a contrary undercurrent remains, flowing toward a more hard-bitten view of romance and commitment. Much of the anger has been scrubbed away, but a residue of frustration and anxiety remains. And while it's true that Vaughn, Favreau, and Bateman are each playing variations of previous screen personas -- Vaughn the happy though trapped family guy (Old School), Favreau the unhappy husband who knows he can't do better than his wife but fantasizes and schemes about adultery anyway (The Break-Up), Bateman the high-pressure, tightly-wound exec who can never relax (most of his post-Arrested Development movie roles) -- it's that very familiarity that allows the film to take shortcuts.

By trading on the audience's perceived knowledge of the characters, the filmmakers are better able to show how much they're lacking in self-awareness. We know that Vaughn isn't as happy as he says he is, we know that Favreau isn't as unhappy as he says he is, and we know that Bateman is far more blame-worthy than he thinks he is. We watch the light blink on for each of them, as they gradually realize their own failings -- or just one, to be fair; this is a movie, after all, not a television series -- and seek to redress the problems they've created in their relationships.

For all the talk about them, the film doesn't delve too deeply into the relationship issues the couples are experiencing. But they're all from the unromantic side, not so easy to dismiss with a joke or a quip. One couple loves each other deeply yet, somehow, is still drifting apart. Another couple were probably never meant to be a couple, yet still feel inexorably drawn together. Another couple tries to love each other too hard, driving each other away. Another couple undresses with the lights out, for good reason.

The women get less of a fair shake than the three lead men, seemingly chosen more for their fit bodies than their suitability for the roles. While Kristin Davis and Kristen Bell are very lovely and perfectly adequate to the tasks set before them, it's Malin Akerman who displays heretofore hidden measures of warmth as the "married with children" bride of Vaughn. In the past, she's relied overly much on her ready laugh, lean looks, and willingness to doff her duds, reminiscent of a younger Cameron Diaz. Akerman lays off the ditziness this time and seems more like the kind of woman who might be won over by Vaughn's charm, and then be inclined to stick with him through challenging times out of a sense of loyalty.

If the women get short shrift, Faizon Love and Kali Hawk really feel like afterthoughts, African Americans added to the cast as comic relief for the better-known Caucasian actors. Love works hard to be funny and mostly succeeds, though his delivery of the dramatic delivery feels forced. Hawk has even less to do; she's an immature 20-year-old attracted to the recently-divorced and still heartbroken Love. We know why Love is attracted to Hawk, though her interest is the older Love is a little less obvious.

More could also have been done with Jean Reno's character, a supposedly famous relationship counselor. It feels like his role, that of a smug foreigner, was divided with two other actors who play similar parts: Peter Serafinowicz as the supercilious Stanley ("with a 'c'") and Carlos Ponce as the highly-toned yoga instructor. The roles could have been combined and Reno could have had much more fun.

And enough with the gay panic jokes, already. One reference would have been enough to establish the latent homophobia of the men, but several entire sequences are built around that revulsion, played for laughs of course, and it's very unwelcome.

For a movie rated PG-13, Couples Retreat is filled with sexual innuendo and many visual jokes. If you don't want to explain to your children why that man's towel is forming a tent, or discuss why so many people think that a man's crotch near another man's face is funny, you may want to leave them at home.

Couples Retreat, despite a few reservations and several missteps, scores far more often than it misses. The targets may be broad and seemingly easy to hit, but there's something to be said about a movie that's so upfront about its aim and desire to please.