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Coarsely charming ‘Vacation Friends’ worth the trip

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Sometimes, we sit down in hopes of being challenged. We seek out art that causes us to ask questions and engage with larger ideas. We watch or we listen or we read in hopes of learning something new, or at least a new way of looking at something we already understand (or think we do). These are powerful artistic experiences, addressing something at our core.

Other times, we just want to escape. Maybe you want to laugh, maybe you want to be frightened, maybe you want a bunch of explosions. You’re not here for fundamental truths. You’re here for fart jokes and fistfights and jump scares.

Both experiences have real value. We want what we want when we want it – and that’s OK.

“Vacation Friends,” newly streaming on Hulu, is very much the latter sort of film. Directed by Clay Tarver from a screenplay Tarver co-wrote with Tom & Tim Mullen, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the comedy is a coarse trifle, a movie built solely around outrageous situations – getting into them, getting out of them, you know the drill.

There are a handful of charming moments here where things threaten to develop some sort of meaningful underpinning – bits where deeper themes of adult friendship and loyalty and the like bob briefly to the surface – but those are quickly drowned out by the nonsense.

It’s fun. Dumb fun. Unchallenging fun. But fun. And sometimes, that’s all you’re looking for.

Marcus (Lil Rel Howery, “Free Guy”) and Emily (Yvonne Orji, “Spontaneous”) are a couple from Chicago on vacation. They’ve reserved a space at a luxury resort, with Marcus going to great pains to put together what he believes will be the perfect proposal. However, upon their arrival, they learn that due to an issue with the suite above theirs, their room is ruined and there is nowhere else for them to go.

While all this is happening, the pair encounter another couple. Ron (John Cena, “The Suicide Squad”) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner, TV’s “Search Party”) are the hard-partying duo responsible for the mishap in Marcus and Emily’s room. In an effort to apologize, Ron and Kyla invite the newly-roomless couple to stay with them. They agree to stay, albeit with some trepidation.

What follows is a week of chaos and debauchery unlike anything that Marcus and Emily have experienced before, though it seems like par for the course for Ron and Kyla. After an extremely eventful vacation, the couples go their separate ways – Ron and Kyla ask to stay in touch, but Marcus and Emily brush it off.

Months later, the wedding date arrives. It’s all being hosted in Atlanta by Emily’s wealthy parents, but there’s tension. Her father Harold (Robert Wisdom, TV’s “Helstrom”) thinks Marcus is beneath his daughter, while her brother Gabe (Andrew Bachelor, “Holidate”) carries resentment from an incident at a family gathering in the past. Marcus has his concerns, but he’s prepared to push through them in order to keep things on track.

But then Ron and Kyla turn up and throw everything into chaos. They prove to be equal parts ingratiating and infuriating to the guests at the event. Their wild presence threatens to upend not just the wedding, but Marcus and Emily’s marriage itself. Specifically, with a number of vague implications about their shared time in Mexico that could sabotage everything.

Like I said, “Vacation Friends” isn’t a demanding movie. It doesn’t ask a lot of the viewer. It is what it is, a coarse and goofy buddy comedy with a little heart. That’s it.

But it is also a well-handled example of what it is. The jokes don’t always land – there are a few bits that wind up as pretty big whiffs – but the misses are relatively minimal. Sure, there’s a sense of appealing to the lowest common denominator – plenty of sight gags and slapstick and crude jokes – but that stuff can be a lot of fun if it’s reasonably well-made and the viewer is in the right mood.

This is Tarver’s debut feature, though he’s done some writing for both film and television. And you can definitely see moments where that inexperience reveals itself. That being said, there’s no doubt that Tarver is also very comfortable with this sort of comedy, resulting in a coarse punchiness that works far more often than it doesn’t, as well as a handful of solid comedic set pieces. Plus, you only get a couple of the scriptural seams that you usually get when there are five credited screenwriters.

Mostly, “Vacation Friends” works because of the underlying charms of the cast. Specifically, our four leads. I’ve taken my share of shots at John Cena in the past, but he’s slowly becoming a reasonably adept comic actor. And he’s actually quite good here, broad and surprisingly expressive. Howery is a nice counterbalance, toning back his own standard expressiveness, thus making the occasional explosion all the more effective. Hagner is an over-the-top delight, going hard in every scene; she’s cranked the energy and snapped off the dial. Orji’s might be the most thankless role of the four, but she still manages to get her share of laughs despite rarely being the focus. The rest of the cast has moments – for example, Bachelor plays a wonderful prissiness that is quite effective – but the truth is that this movie belongs to our central foursome.

“Vacation Friends” isn’t great cinema. But if you’re looking to have a few laughs while spending time with a coarsely charming quartet, then you’ve come to the right place. It might not be a five-star experience, but “Vacation Friends” is worth the trip.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 30 August 2021 11:02

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