“Vacation Friends” is yet another movie that was originally planned for theaters, ended up delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then eventually moved to streaming. Ideas for the film sprang up as far back as 2014 and over the years there have been several big names attached including Chris Pratt and Ice Cube. It’s set to premiere this weekend on Hulu and suffice it to say tossing it to streaming was definitely the right move.
In this COVID-19 world of quarantines and lockdowns, this is the kind of movie that may attract those of us who have postponed trips or canceled reservations. But don’t let its title fool you. While the idea of a ‘vacation movie’ may sound strangely cathartic, in reality this proudly raunchy and glaringly unfunny endurance test makes the idea of staying at home and skipping vacation a lot more appealing.
Produced by 20th Century Studios, “Vacation Friends” comes from first-time feature film director Clay Tarver (perhaps best known for his work on HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) who also co-writes with a team of four other screenwriters. Their unapologetically simple story opens with Marcus and Emily (Lil Rel Howery and Yvonne Orji) arriving in Mexico for a romantic week-long getaway. But this is more than just a vacation. The uptight and antsy Marcus has meticulously planned-out the perfect marriage proposal. What could possibly go wrong?
A series of rather unfortunate events leads to Marcus and Emily crossing paths with the aggressively free-spirited Ron (John Cena) and his flighty girlfriend Kyla (Meredith Hagner). Soon the two couples are jaunting around Puerto Rico (posing as Mexico) engaging in all kinds of mind-numbing debauchery. Cocaine-laced margaritas, trippy hallucinogens, tons of booze and one extremely wild and hazy final night together.
This is all stuff we’ve seen before – dull yet seemingly normal characters losing any sense of sound judgement or common sense and going wild for reasons that only make sense in movies like this. And it’s nothing new seeing a strait-laced stiff paired on screen with a rambunctious hedonist. Here it just happens to be a couples movie rather than a buddy feature.
Mercifully the grating vacation horseplay only lasts around thirty minutes and soon Marcus and Emily are on a plane heading home, eager to erase the rowdy week with Ron and Kyla from their memory. But as the press notes so eloquently put it, what happens on vacation doesn’t always stay on vacation, and leaving behind their new hard-partying chums turns out to be easier said than done.
Six months pass and Marcus and Emily are ready to formally tie the knot in an extravagant ceremony put on by her snooty upper-crust parents. But in keeping with the movie’s unwavering predictably, the oblivious Ron and Kyla pop back up and crash the wedding, bringing along their clueless chaos and turning the starchy festivities into their own personal party.
And just like that we’re thrust right back into the maddening mayhem of the earlier scenes. It’s toned down some, but barely enough to notice. As for the rest of the story, it’s nothing more that one wacky mishap after another; scene after scene of Ron and Kyla driving Marcus and Emily (and the audience) crazy. Of course most of it could be avoided with a few words of dialogue or some common everyday discernment. But most movies like this require a certain level of idiocy from all of its characters.
If you look close, underneath the lowbrow humor and relentless silliness, you’ll find a handful of lightly breaded themes. The most obvious is the idea of living in the moment, although the example Ron and Kyla set is hardly worth following. There’s also the issue of classism which is used in a couple of interesting ways. Marcus and Emily see Ron and Kyla as beneath them, much like Emily’s haughty father (a really good Robert Wisdom) sees Marcus.
As for the performances, Howery finds himself stuck in one of those roles as old as cinema itself. He’s the movie’s straight man who for 95 minutes is tortured by the irritating antics of others. We do get a few scenes of him doing his Lil Rel “thing”, but for the most part he’s the film’s punching bag. Orji is a good match for him, but her character doesn’t get much to do other than react to the craziness.
As for Cena, he’s certainly committed. But there are scenes where he’s working so hard to sell himself as the lovable buffoon. Sometimes he’s believable, other times he’s almost mechanical. Hagner is amusing early on, but her ditzy act gets old well before the halfway mark. Together the two share a playful chemistry, but they’re so over-the-top, and the film’s attempt at humanizing them in the final 10 minutes falls flat.
Movies like “Vacation Friends” are a dime a dozen, but they often manage to find an audience. If you’re a fan of this kind of stock quality try-hard comedy then chances are you’ll like this one. But it does nothing to separate itself from countless similar movies that came before it. Sure, it has a fairly unique premise. But having a a fresh idea and then doing the same old tired thing isn’t much to get excited about. “Vacation Friends” premieres this weekend on Hulu.