As the buddies of Swingers (1996), the classic L.A.-set guyville comedy that put the two of them on the map, Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau had a new kind of snappishly disaffected camaraderie. They were friends who each acted like a spiky entourage of one; their bond figuring out how to impress a girl by pretending not to care about her was built around bolstering each other's egos by getting in each other's faces. Swingers, which Favreau wrote, came out 13 years ago, but once you've seen Couples Retreat, the mediocre, funnier-at-times-than-you-expect, more-middle-class-stodgy-than-it-should-have-been new comedy about four couples (most of them old friends) who attempt to heal their relationships at a New Age therapeutic resort, it feels as if it came out about 113 years ago.
Vaughn and Favreau are still getting in each other's faces, but what a difference a decade makes. We've all heard of failing upward; with Couples Retreat, Vaughn and Favreau seem to be succeeding downward. Written by both of them (along with Dana Fox), and directed by Peter Billingsley, it's one of those comedies in which each couple comes with its own cute tics and tidy conflicts like, say, Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell), who are fraying each other's nerves because they can't conceive a child (they also fray the nerves of the audience by explaining their lives as a PowerPoint presentation). Or Shane (Faizon Love), the roly-poly divorced dude who brings along his high-lariously inappropriate paramour, 20-year-old party girl Trudy (Kali Hawk), who likes to call him ''Daddy'' from across crowded rooms.
As for Vaughn and Favreau, they're the beleaguered, hanging-in-there marital vets. Vaughn's Dave is a relatively centered father who, despite being chained to his job as a videogame salesman, would do well to stop brushing off the minor requests of his wife, Ronnie (Malin Akerman, as a miraculously radiant overworked mother of two). Favreau's Joey is an angry lug trapped in a union of toxic insincerity with Lucy (Kristin Davis), who knows how to give as bad as she gets.
Kicking off their package-deal vacation, which they've all been roped into out of solidarity with Jason and Cynthia and their fertility issues, the eight arrive at Eden, an idyllic island of luxury huts and aqua-blue ocean (Joey: ''Holy s---, this looks like a screensaver!'') in Bora Bora. But, of course, it's a bogus paradise. There are circling sharks, ''Couples Skill Building'' counselors with even sharper teeth, a goofy idiot of a French guru (Jean Reno), and an even more idiotic French Fabio of a yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce) who pins everyone into high-lariously overt sexual positions. Meanwhile, bubbling just under the surface of the film's variety pack of marital strife is that prickly Vaughn/Favreau hostility.
Favreau now plays men with incredibly short fuses, and he's funny every time his gets lit. He also does great double takes when a waiter catches him attempting to pleasure himself to a brochure photo. As for Vaughn, he remains a testy master of talking circles around himself, as in the moment when Dave realizes that his assigned couples therapist, played with yummy smugness by John Michael Higgins, is doing all he can to make the marriage worse. Later, after being nicked by a shark, Vaughn turns his ''close encounter'' with death into an anxiety attack that keeps on giving.
The movie builds toward a clandestine group voyage to the other side of the Eden resort, the section of the island devoted to Dionysian Jell-O-shot-happy singles. To our jaded couples, it's forbidden paradise a fleshpot Bali Hai. Up until this point, Couples Retreat has a pleasantly relaxed, episodic rhythm. As the plot kicks in, it grows more impersonal, though I did enjoy the ''athletic'' climax: a Guitar Hero duel, amusing because even the winner's victory is so desperately vicarious. Couples Retreat is fluff, a genially banal message comedy about learning to live with your spouse by staying true to yourself. But thanks to Vaughn, Favreau, and the stray sharp lines that pop out of everyone else, the film at least offers the lively sound of egos that still know how to swing. B–