POSTED ON OCTOBER 14, 2009:
Couples Retreat bores, while Kansas? welcomes conservatives and liberals
Unplugged. I wasn't expecting much from Couples Retreat, but the cast gave me hope. Even the great British comedic actor Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead) is wasted in a lame sequence that amounts to little more than an unfunny Guitar Hero advertisement.
I probably don't get to the theater enough. It's usually a scheduling thing--or maybe the $9 ticket factor. But for whatever reason one might be compelled to go to the movies, going with a friend is usually better, right? The odds of coming up short on one or the other can get problematic.
But even if you go at it alone, the communal aspect will usually suck you in when the movie is good. This is not so true with Couples Retreat, a film that actually made me glad I wasn't seeing it with someone I liked.
Written by and starring Vince Vaughn and John Favreau, Couples Retreat mines shopworn comedic ground to set up its ensemble cast. Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Silk Specter herself, Malin Ackerman) are seemingly happily married parents who are seemingly the picture of Ikea boredom. Joey (Favreau) is on the verge of divorce from his wife Lucy (Sex and the City alum Kristen Davis) as they pine for the moment their daughter will stop wearing slutty clothes and get out of the house. Meanwhile, Shane (Faizon Love) is recovering from his divorce by overextending himself financially, and all too physically, with Trudy (Kali Hawk), a 20-year-old who calls all of her boyfriends daddy.
Tying them and the plot altogether are Jason (Jason Bateman) and his wife Cynthia (Kristen Bell), a childless and hopelessly anal couple who corral their friends into a vacation in Eden; an all-inclusive Paradise by the Sea, so that they can spend a week trying to decide if they want to stay married.
I'm not against this sort of set up, but Couples Retreat seems to want to pay homage to a genre of film that rarely works, even when it's R-Rated: the marital sex farce.
It toys with the idea of being edgy about married couples and their sexual dynamics when they are thrown into what could be considered a license to swing.
Times have changed, and while something like the George Seagal/Natalie Wood 1980 film The Last Married Couple in America might seem like a spiritual cousin to this film (along with any generic comedy set at a resort), Couples Retreat lacks the cultural zeitgeist, cocaine and gratuitous nudity of the sex comedies released in that less uptight era.
Thing is, I'm sure Vaughn and Favreau remember what I'm talking about, and the fact that this is not an R-rated romp only leads me to believe they wrote a safe, milquetoast script as an excuse to shoot a movie in Tahiti.
Ultimately, all I ever ask of a comedy is that it be funny. It could be a film shot for 15 bucks in a single room with three people and if it made me laugh consistently then I'd consider it a success.
I remember having a couple of wry smiles cross my face during Couples Retreat's 107-minute runtime, but the only actual laughs came from a gag I already saw in the trailer. Along with a couple of jokes I made up myself while wishing the writers had thought of them first (though I'd be in remiss if I didn't mention the Asian therapist (Ken Jeong) who was hilarious).
It's not like the film suffers from a dearth of funny people. Vaughn and Favreau have an obvious and easy chemistry, which extends to most of the main cast. But it's their inherent likeability in other films that you almost have to cling to in order for these characters to come off as likeable. Faizon Love gets the most out of the least material, but the vanilla script does him no favors, and it almost torpedoes the usually reliable Jason Bateman entirely.
His imaginatively named Jason was one of the more annoying characters, and that's a shame. Kristen Bell, Kristen Davis and Malin Akerman are all serviceable (and I must say easy on the eye in beachwear), but I imagine that they must have signed on for the opportunity to hang out in the South Pacific. The cliché ridden script (another muscle bound yoga instructor putting the wives in overtly sexual positions in front of their husbands, really?) couldn't possibly have stood out to these talented actors.
I wasn't expecting much from Couples Retreat, but the cast gave me hope. Even the great British comedic actor Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead) is wasted in a lame sequence that amounts to little more than an unfunny Guitar Hero advertisement, though, aside for really big Star Wars nerds, the film finally brings him together with Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett from Attack of the Clones). Serafinowicz had voiced Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.
All this bland is directed with a minimal level of competence by Peter Billingsley (yep, Ralphie from A Christmas Story). He keeps the story on the rails, and the pacing and editing don't draw too much attention.
Although the film is shot on a gorgeous location, he takes little advantage of it. That doesn't do much to help the films sitcom nature, though I'd be hard-pressed to say it looks like a TV show. It was just another wasted element. I know comedy is subjective as hell, and I'm not the easiest guy to please in that regard. But in even the most charitable eyes I can't imagine that Couples Retreat would be thought of as anything more than cute and forgettable. A movie to be on TV in the background on a Sunday afternoon, while you're doing something more interesting.
Matters of Fact
Fortunately, I didn't get totally screwed out of seeing a good movie this weekend.
Based on the best-selling book by Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas? adapts Frank's thesis: that the transformation of Kansas from a historical hot bed of liberal populism into one of the most conservative states in the U.S. has produced an inherent contradiction on why poorer social conservatives vote Republican despite their needs and concerns.
The film follows four main people: Angel Dillard, an economic refugee who returns to her native Kansas to start over after being saved; Brittany Barden, the teenage daughter of a Evangelical family who is on the cusp of college life at Patrick Henry, an orthodox Protestant school; Donn Teske, the president of the Kansas chapter of the National Farmers Union, whose frustration with the concessions Washington gives to agribusiness leave him "a populist without a party"; and Terry Fox, the pastor of a Wichita-based Baptist church who's fire and brimstone approach to social issues causes him to butt heads not with his flock, but instead, his fellow shepherds.
While Frank's question might seem a bit presumptuous (after all, most of the people examined in the film probably don't consider that there's anything wrong with the way they think, though they seem to agree that something is wrong) the film itself is not a polemicist diatribe about the seeming cognitive dissonance some of its subjects seem to live in.
Director Joe Winston seems to truly be looking to create an honest portrait of these people. There are no Michael Moore-esque editing tricks, or sensationalist posturing that hammer comedic ironies into the head of the viewer. It's meandering meditation paints a confident directorial line to connect the disparate concerns conservative Kansans (and conservatives in general) have, and uses it's palette to give the (in all likelihood liberal) audience a non-judgmental window into the mindset of people who repeatedly vote against their own best economic interests in the hope that those politicians will do something to stem the tide of social liberalism.
While a liberal audience may scoff at the even handedness the film seeks to afford people who are, to one degree or another, divorced from the reality of the situation (shrinking populations, economic disparity, or believing the Earth is 6,000 years old), the film itself doesn't ridicule any of them, or play them for laughs.
It does, however, contrast the assertions of Frank's book on their individual plights, and if you are of Frank's frame of mind, then the answer to his question is quite obvious: Politicians who exploit people's conservative and religious beliefs to get their vote use their elected position to cater to the interests of business which, more often then not, run in direct opposition to the interests of the voters.
But that's why you should go see the film. I don't want to filter these people through my own political lens; and it's hard to resist the temptation. In a pre-movie Q&A, director Joe Winston noted that the film was greeted as warmly among conservative audiences as liberal ones. That's because it plays it straight in order to attempt to create an honest dialogue.
What's the Matter with Kansas? is interesting, compelling, quite funny (due to a real character named M.T. Liggett who had me laughing more in his short screen time then I laughed at the entirety of Couples Retreat), and stays true to the ideas behind Frank's own questions about the historical conundrum he seems to suffer from as a lefty who calls Kansas his birthplace.
Why did a state that practically gave birth to liberal populism so radically shift to the Right? I imagine the answers would play just as well to a conservative audience, and if anything What's the Matter with Kansas? tries very earnestly to speak to conservatives if only to offer an alternative to the delusional, incendiary answers they are getting from faux-populist pundits like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. It does a good job of that. Highly recommended.
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