Tue, 05 Dec 2023

Vacation Friends

Director: Clay Tarver
Screenplay: Tom Mullen & Tim Mullen and Clay Tarver and Jonathan M. Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Stars: Lil Rel Howery (Marcus), Yvonne Orji (Emily), John Cena (Ron), Meredith Hagner (Kyla), Robert Wisdom (Harold), Lynn Whitfield (Suzanne), Andrew Bachelor (Gabe), Tawny Newsome (Brooke), Barry Rothbart (Darren), Kamal Angelo Bolden (Bennet), Denise Burse (Grandma Phyllis)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2021
Country: U.S.
Vacation Friends

Vacation Friends

John Cena has had a lot of careers at this point. A former college football player-turned-bodybuilder-turned WWE superstar, Cena has also dabbled in rap music (his 2005 album You Can't See Me went platinum) and attempted to become the heir apparent to musclebound '80s action heroes Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger with movies like The Marine (2005) and 12 Rounds (2009). That didn't work out, mainly because the movies in which he was placed gave him no room to work. As I wrote when I reviewed The Marine, "not much is required of him except a few slight variations of a singular stern look that stands in for concern, anger, and pain-the basic line-up of emotions that action heroes have to endure." That sounds like a criticism of Cena's acting ability, but it is really more about the constraints placed on him by the movie and its limited imagination.

Thankfully, in recent years Cena has found his true calling, which is comedy. More so than either Stallone or Schwarzenegger, both of whom labored mightily in the '80s and '90s to parody their stoic action personas in broad comedies with varying degrees of success, Cena is genuinely hilarious because he is so good at deploying his thick-necked, square-jawed seriousness for laughs. We saw it in Judd Apatow's Trainwreck (2015), where he played Amy Schumer's overly serious and very sincere boyfriend, and most recently he used his comic skills to great effect as the misguided, violent superhero Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad (2021). And now we get Vacation Friends, a raucous comedy in which two couples who couldn't be any more different wind up spending a week together during a vacation in Mexico that then spills over into their non-vacation lives. One of those couples is comprised of Cena's Ron and his girlfriend Kyla (Meredith Hagner), who don't so much navigate life as they tear through it, throwing caution to the wind at every turn and essentially doing everything that should get them arrested, injured, and/or killed and somehow getting away with it. A mix of macho signifiers (he is a former Green Beret) and beach-bum languor (his personal mantra is just to "float"), Ron is a raging, gleefully grinning id who still leaves room for Eastern religious practices and isn't afraid to show real affection when it counts. He would be a boor if wasn't so generous and genuine.

Ron and Kyla essentially inject themselves into the lives of Marcus and Emily (Lil Rel Howery and Yvonne Orji), a straight-laced couple whose hotel room is flooded by Ron and Kyla's overflowing jacuzzi in the Presidential Suite upstairs. Marcus and Emily are Ron and Kyla's distinct opposites: respectable, reasonable, and highly conscious of everything they do. They are also newly engaged, and Marcus is struggling with the fact that Emily's controlling dad (Robert Wisdom) and overly aggressive brother (Andre Bachelor) can't stand him, partially because they willfully believe him to be a blue-collar construction worker, rather than the owner of a construction company (class issues run all throughout the film in ways both significant and subtle). Against their better impulses, Marcus and Emily agree to share the massive Presidential Suite with Ron and Kyla, which kicks off a weeklong bacchanal in which the latter couple introduces the former to cocaine-rimmed margaritas, spontaneous cliff-diving, and group sex (maybe).

While it is all fun and wild, Marcus and Emily are ready to get back to their normal lives and leave their experiences with Ron and Emily in Mexico. But, as it turns out, what happened in Mexico doesn't stay in Mexico, and seven months later Ron and Kyla inject themselves back into Marcus and Emily's life on their wedding weekend, throwing what should be a completely respectable, high-class affair into another raucous bacchanal, albeit one that is more stressed by Marcus and Emily's need to keep up appearances in front of their wealthy friends and family. This is especially true of Marcus, who is still trying to impress his soon-to-be father-in-law, who is immediately smitten with Ron due to their shared military background. Lil Rel Howery, a comedian who has been slowly working his way into movies, plays his character's pinched, high-strung concern and frustration against Cena's languid obliviousness. The key to Cena's character and what makes him so funny and surprising is that you can never quite be sure if he knows what he is doing or if he is just winging it until he reaches a state of catastrophe (which seems to be the case when he bets heavily on 18 holes of golf against Emily's brother and his vacuous friend).

Ron and Kyla are a source of constant embarrassment, but beneath their boorish behavior we sense that they are genuine people trying to be genuine friends, which gives the movie an undercurrent of sentiment that works. Director Clay Tarver, an executive producer and writer on the television series Silicon Valley making his feature directing debut, keeps the pace moving and the energy (as well as many of the characters) high. And, while it never gets mushy, but Vacation Friends is clearly about more than just raunchy jokes and bad behavior. In its own crude way, it is an ode to genuine friendship and how our lives can be enriched and expanded when we step outside our comfort zones.

Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright © Hulu

Overall Rating: (3)


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