... a passable streaming viewing
VACATION FRIENDS (2021)
Studio comedies used to populate cinemas on a weekly basis, but the advent of streaming has caused the genre to vanish from the big screen. Netflix (He's All That and Fatherhood) and Hulu (The Binge and Happiest Season) have happily carried the baton ever since, producing a medley of familiar yet comforting titles for casual viewers to embrace. Hulu's latest attempt at uproarious laughter, Vacation Friends, embraces a familiar comedy formula with a star-studded cast in tow. The results, while mildly diverting, never traverse past been-there-done-that contrivances.
Director Clay Tarver has cut his teeth as a producer and writer for the hit HBO show Silicon Valley. In his feature film debut, Tarver implements little of note behind the director's chair. The visuals read with the same overly-lit blandness that's synonymous with cheap sitcom productions. Tarver never embraces the dynamism needed to spark the proceedings, rarely leaning into the chaotic carnage that the premise attempts to unearth. Whether characters are tripping on drugs or attempting a daring stunt, every scene is composed from the same auto-pilot level delivery.
There's nothing inherently woeful about Tarver's effort. He possesses a clear understanding of comedic timing and what makes vulgar comedies of this ilk tic. However, Tarver doesn't do much to spice up the proceedings, leaving extra weight on the cast and screenplay to carry the material forward.
Vacation Friends follows Marcus and Emily, a buttoned-up couple going on a trip before their wedding day. When they meet the reckless wildcards, Ron and Kyla, the quartet forms a memorable bond as they let their hair down on vacation.
When Marcus and Emily return from their vacation, Ron and Kyle make a surprise appearance at their wedding, leading the engaged couple to make appearances with their new friends. The premise certainly possesses the wacky vitality of a good comedy. A cast full of colorful characters and awkward situations should create plenty of opportunities for laughs.
Tarver, Tim Mullins, and Tom Mullins' screenplay does little to ignite the promising concept. The plot follows the same routine tropes without subversively building upon the clichés. Audiences can practically set their watch for when the eventual third act melodrama will hit, and the middling results don't do much to inspire interest. There are laughs to be had from the premise, but I was left wanting more effort from the by-the-numbers screenplay.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Vacation Friends' best asset is its cast. Lil Rey Howery and John Cena form a personable camaraderie as opposites that create an unlikely connection. Cena continues to be an apt fit for shameless comedies, with the actor imbuing enough energy and naive sincerity to make him an effective bud of the joke. Howery's sharp wordplay and easy-going charisma make him a sturdy straight man to Cena's hijinks.
Co-stars Yvonne Orji and Meredith Hagner aren't given nearly as much to do, but both properly elevate the other pair of opposites with personable charm. Robert Wisdom, Andrew Bachelor, and Lynn Whitfield also help round the solid ensemble as family friends unexpectedly wrapped into the chaos.
The material never truly matches the cast's sturdy delivery. That said, the ensemble brings the right amount of playfulness and comfort to mask some of the material's flaws.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
Comedies aren't typically known for their visceral craftsmanship. Vacation Friends certainly doesn't change that trend. Aside from a goofily animated fox, there's not much to speak of in terms of visual effects work. The design and makeup are competent yet unspectacular. Similar to the direction, there's a lack of spark to elevate the material's shortcomings.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Sound plays a sneakily important role in comedies, often highlighting a sharp comedic barb or an unexpected change of events through their timely cues. Here, Vacation Friends operates in the standard comedy mold. The film zigs and zags at the precise moment one would expect it to, with Rolfe Kent's score sounding indistinguishable from your typical run-of-the-mill comedy.
Vacation Friends hits competent marks across the board, but there are few areas where the film excels. Tarver and company execute an uninspired detour into zany cliches, going through the played-out comedy playbook without adding its own twist to the table. There are just too many mild chuckles and not enough hard-earned laughs to make up for the material’s flaws. That said, I do hope more studios embrace the studio comedy formula. Even missed opportunities like this film still elicit enough breezy entertainment to make for a passable streaming viewing.