Vacation Friends review – raucous summer comedy is a washout

<span>Photograph: Jessica Miglio/AP</span>
Photograph: Jessica Miglio/AP

There’s a sense of strained desperation behind the title of the crude summer comedy Vacation Friends that seeps through to the film itself, the bullish insistence that, yes, Vacation Friends is a phrase that people frequently use is as deranged as assuming that something as utterly disposable as Vacation Friends needs to exist right now. There’s a migraine-inducing amount of content being thrown at us, especially in the last year, and this downgraded time-waster (from a Fox theatrical release to a Hulu/Disney streaming premiere) is exactly the kind of thing we don’t have time for, vacation or no.

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It’s a sloppy throwback to both the 80s, when perhaps Dan Aykroyd and John Candy would have starred, and then also the 00s, when Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell would have led, the kind of thing that seems deceptively easy to get right but when it’s done wrong, it’s abundantly clear that’s very much not the case. The base ingredients are here – a charming, comically adept cast, a fun culture clash set-up, idyllic scenery! – but they’re carelessly tossed together rather than combined with any thought, care or even slickness. Director Clay Tarver and his four (!) co-writers smooth over the many cracks with in-your-face lewdness intended to shock but instead it exhausts, each act of provocation causing not our jaws to drop but our eyes to roll even further back. How did something so breezy end up feeling like a chore?

Marcus (Lil Rel Howery) is taking his girlfriend Emily (Yvonne Orji) to Mexico for a vacation and also as an extravagant way of finally popping the question. But despite priding himself on his ability to plan every inch of his life, Marcus finds that his romantic proposal is a disaster when their five-star suite is flooded. With the only other option being an airport Best Western the two are taken in by rowdy couple Ron (John Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner). The differences between the couples are strikingly clear (Ron and Kyla are more cocaine and guns while Marcus and Emily are more not cocaine and guns) but they find an unusual, tequila-fuelled bond, at least while surrounded by the artificiality of being so far from home. When their week ends, the pair are happy to leave their more extreme counterparts behind but seven months later, as their wedding beckons back in Atlanta, Ron and Kyla reappear and threaten to destroy everything.

There’s something undeniably interesting, if not exactly unexplored, in examining who we are and what we might tolerate while on vacation, all of us having some experience of a holiday fling or an unlikely friendship that was designed purely for that time and never to be revisited again. It’s a space where we might do or say things we wouldn’t in our normal lives, a brief chance to reinvent and reinvigorate, and so with Vacation Friends, we’re given a scenario that explains why a more strait-laced couple would let their hair down with quite so much gusto for seven days. But Tarver’s film throws them, and us, right in the deep end from the outset, drowning whatever chance he might have had at getting us to believe a single thing that then happens. Rather than a growing escalation of wild behaviour, Ron and Kyla immediately start acting in such cartoonishly outsized ways that we struggle to understand why anyone would want to spend another second around them.

Within minutes of meeting, they try to spike Marcus and Emily’s drinks with cocaine they smuggled into Mexico before a series of far-fetched situations involving more drugs, a gun, physical altercations and an orgy. The five (!) writers involved with the script aren’t able to find a way to make the friendship make much sense and so it’s hard to care about the chaos that ruins their wedding back in Atlanta, every ridiculous red flag moment one that’s entirely deserved. In the Farrelly brothers’ wildly underrated remake of The Heartbreak Kid (a Mexico-set comedy that’s every bit as crude as this), Malin Akerman’s unhinged new wife is that much more effective because she starts out as someone whose flaws are hidden or at least disguised by how she looks and how much Ben Stiller’s eager bachelor wants to love her. But starting out at 100 is a misstep this film isn’t able to get over and the cycle of wild act followed by sighs and face-palming gets tired real fast.

The underserved cast try their best to distract, with Cena and Howery building on recently adopted personas well, the latter deservedly and comfortably settling into lead over supporting. Orji, the MVP of HBO’s incisive comedy Insecure, gets very little to do and does it well enough but it’s Hagner, who stole every single one of her scenes in Search Party, who continues to do the same here, getting the biggest laughs, almost entirely based on her delivery rather than what she has to work with. The script is remarkably low on genuinely funny lines or set pieces, opting for broad mania over specificity which makes the last act sentimentality even harder to stomach.

Like Ron and Kyla, Vacation Friends outstays its welcome and then some.

  • Vacation Friends is now available on Hulu in the US and on Star on Disney+ in the UK