By Rick Kisonak | October 14, 2009

I find it impossible to fathom the critical savaging this film has received. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating barely exceeds Vince Vaughn’s shoe size and yet by my count, “Couples Retreat” delivers on all of its promises. It’s the funniest movie about mating since “Knocked Up.”

Written by Vaughn, Jon Favreau, and Dana Fox, the story concerns four suburban couples in varying states of marital meltdown. Dave and Ronnie (Vaughn and Malin Akerman) have two young sons. They’re the most solid of the bunch though Dave’s been putting in so many hours at his video game store he’s not really there for her when Ronnie wants to discuss home renovation details.

Hanging in there but slowly growing apart are high school sweethearts Joey and Lucy (Favreau and “Sex in the City’s” Kristin Davis). Already divorced and dating Trudy, a mall clerk half his age with twice his energy is Shane (Faizon Love and Kali Hawk).

The driving force behind the island getaway are Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell), whose marriage is threatened by their inability to conceive a child. They have a peculiar habit of turning their problems into PowerPoint presentations rather than simply telling their friends about them. This couple makes a pitch during one such session for the lot of them to enjoy some downtime at a seaside resort called Eden. If four couples sign on, they explain, the rate is cut in half. Also mentioned in passing is the fact that the place offers “couples skill building.” Jason and Cynthia admit they plan to work on their relationship but assure the others they’ll have the option to simply kick back and veg out.

The truth is revealed in a priceless early scene. At dinner, an excited Dave tells his friends and the resort’s official greeter (Peter Serafinowicz) that he plans to party late into the night and crash late into the following day. Imagine his surprise – and that of the other couples who have not come to build their skills – when all are informed that therapy is mandatory and commences at 6:30 am.

So much for paradise. Life on the island quickly becomes a living hell of counseling sessions and goofball trust exercises all presided over by Marcel (Jean Reno), the island’s ponytailed new age guru and “couples whisperer.” Marcel takes his clients out into deep water for one of these exercises and Dave learns the hard way to trust his instincts rather than his new teacher when he’s attacked by sharks he is guaranteed pose no threat.

The gags are gutbusting for the most part. Highpoints include perhaps the most inappropriate yoga lesson in movie history, an extremely ill-timed room service delivery, an epic Guitar Hero showdown and a just-try-not-to-laugh series of scenes involving a preschooler with a fondness for christening showroom commodes. As with any film featuring Vaughn, however, the real payoff is the dialogue. If there’s such a thing as a verbal virtuoso, he is one. Nobody motormouths surreal one liners and non sequitors with a fraction of the guy’s panache. He’s a poet of comic patter.

“Couples Retreat” marks the directorial debut of Peter Billingsley (yup, Ralphie from 1983’s “A Christmas Story”) who’s been Vaughn’s producing partner on a number of projects. If you ask me, he’s made a film his first time out that’s funnier than some comedies overseen by genre vets as revered as Judd Apatow – “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” for example. Life on the island may not have proven everything our four couples dreamed, but forget what you’ve heard: Billingsley’s freshman effort is a tropical treat.

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