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Directed by Clay Tarver
Written by Tim Mullen, Tom Mullen, Clay Tarver, Jonathan Goldstein, and John Francis Daley
Starring Lil Rey Howery, Yvonne Orji, Meredith Hagner, and John Cena
Classification R, 1 hr. 40 min
Streaming August 27 on Star on Disney+
The raunchy comedy Vacation Friends has a storied history in Hollywood. Set to film in March 2020, production stalled multiple times until it finally went to camera in September 2020. It’s debatable whether the wait was worth it for this predictable, milquetoast comedy that is all set-up, no follow-through.
The likes of Will Smith and Nicolas Cage have been attached to Tom and Tim Mullen’s spec script since 2013. Originally cast with then-marrieds Anna Faris and Chris Pratt, its final iteration is as a buddy comedy between Lil Rel Howery, Insecure’s Yvonne Orji, Search Party’s Meredith Hagner, and an inevitable John Cena.
Recalling the drug-fuelled hijinks of The Hangover and Rough Night with all the family values morality of a lesser Judd Apatow movie, Vacation Friends begins as a meet-cute between two couples at a swanky resort in Mexico. Howery and Orji play it completely straight (and never get to have that much fun on screen) as the upwardly mobile and professional couple Marcus and Emily, who yearn for quality time on their highly-anticipated romantic getaway. (Adding to the anxiety about the trip, Marcus is also about to pop the question and wants everything to be perfect for his proposal.) They first spy Kyla and Ron (a delightful Hagner, truly our generation’s Goldie Hawn, and Cena) from a distance on the shore, taking hits from a bong while riding a jet ski. When Marcus and Emily find out that Ron’s flagrant Jacuzzi usage has flooded their hotel room below, they are invited to shack up with the near strangers in their huge presidential suite. Some hilarity ensues.
Vacation Friends’ first 30 minutes of pure debauchery is the film’s high point, including such hijinks as an impromptu wedding with a religious shaman, many rounds of margaritas (the salt on the rim is actually cocaine!), and a possible wife-swapping foursome, if only Marcus could remember it. The odd couples bond, Ron talks about his feelings while Kyla sympathetically pats him on the back, and Marcus and Emily blow off some much-needed steam at the expense of their kooky new pals. But when they say goodbye to their “vacation friends” at the airport, they don’t give Ron and Kyla their contact information. Whatever happens in Mexico needs to stay there.
With the right director, and yet another rewrite of Tom and Tim Mullen’s belaboured screenplay (screenwriter duo Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley of Spiderman: Homecoming and Game Night also made some adjustments after Pratt left the project), Vacation Friends could’ve been the fun, lackadaisical resort comedy it wants to be. Our ensemble has considerable chemistry and are all charismatic performers in their own right. It’s fun to watch Cena in goading jock mode, until Howery jumps off a cliff with his glasses still on. Unfortunately, Tarver’s film soon veers hard on its cinematic jet skis, and falls flat on its face.
Nobody who’s bought and sold a premise of “John Cena vacation comedy” wants to watch a boring wedding movie that solely focuses on Marcus’ desperate attempts to impress Emily’s demanding father, yet that’s what Vacation Friends becomes. These tensions are ill-defined and have no cinematic urgency. Tarver, who is a lazy, unimaginative director at the best of times, barely tries to command attention during a dramatic confrontation between Marcus and Emily’s brother. A comic motif that sees Marcus continually punch Emily’s brother in the face makes absolutely no sense.
While the inevitable wedding-crashing return of Ron and Kyla injects some much needed chaotic energy back into the film, it’s too late. Marcus and Emily’s relationship is too bland and conflict-free to sustain our interest and Ron and Kyla’s meddlesome attempts to get them to loosen up just make these sweet weirdos seem sociopathic. Several set pieces from there on are a pure failure of direction and the film’s multimillion dollar budget. We see Marcus and Ron accidentally ingest magic mushrooms on a fox hunt and the camera shifts to three seconds of “trippy” heat-vision cinematography. Marcus accidentally drops the wedding rings down a sewer grate hours before the wedding. They are found off-screen by Ron a few scenes later, never to be remarked upon again.
Perhaps there’s a reason why the cursed saga of the making of Vacation Friends ends with the film streaming on the internet in the middle of a pandemic. While it’s fun to picture Nicolas Cage and Will Smith sharing a laugh over cocaine-rimmed margaritas, this film functions like a beached whale.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)