Vacations generally suck. They’re expensive. They’re a pain in the ass to plan especially when there are other people involved. The traveling is so draining that after you spend all that time relaxing, you’re back home tired from the trip. If you’re lucky or unlucky, you’ll meet people that will make the experience etched in memory, in good or bad ways. Hulu’s latest comedy, Vacation Friends, a rowdy comedy in the vein of classic nightmare vacation films with a touch of Meet the Parents, has it in both ways.
Lil Rel Howrey and Yvonne Orji play soon-to-be-engaged couple Marcus and Emily, who both live straight-laced upstanding lives. As part of his proposal plan, Marcus organizes a trip to Mexico with Emily in the guise of an unsuspecting getaway. Things don’t go well in true vacation movie fashion when Marcus and Emily cross paths with Ron and Kyla, a crazy couple with a knack for getting themselves into deep trouble. The two couples fall into all sorts of drunken craziness during their trip but eventually part ways when they return to the real world outside their vacation bubble. That is until the crazies get wind of Marcus and Emily’s very exclusive wedding date in the real world.
Hot off the heels of his acclaimed role as Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad, John Cena plays Ron, a jack-of-all-trades Green Beret/mountain ranger with a penchant for sniffing out mushrooms and bird shit. But despite those seemingly fun quirks, Cena is surprisingly dull as Ron. A big problem here is that Cena is constantly going for the bit whereas in Suicide Squad, Peacemaker’s astute subdued demeanor is the bit. When Cena reaches for that laugh – and he really reaches for it – the bit gets played out before it even ends. In contrast to his numerous scene-stealing one-liners in Suicide Squad, it’s almost baffling to see Cena fumble here.
This movie doesn’t have a great script nor focused story to start with so Cena’s chemistry with Lil Rel Howrey is this film’s strongest foundation. The movie knows that these two guys have something special going on so it spends a lot of time just honing on these two polar opposites at odds with each other. It’s the classic tandem of uptight straight man and wild card and it works for those two. Howrey plays Marcus’ grumpy uptight straight man persona to the T while Cena’s carefree lumbering take on Ron contrasts it nicely. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it’s a cog that makes the whole thing run smoothly. Without their chemistry, this movie would’ve been a total misfire.
And Vacation Friends falls close to being a misfire. The idea of mixing a nightmare vacation comedy with a Meet the Parents wedding movie may seem like a fun combo at first but this film makes neither of those ideas work beyond the surface. The vacation aspect of the film just isn’t crazy enough nor does its definition of “crazy” – basically getting drunk and doing drunk shit – make the Meet the Parents aspect an entertaining riot. Ron and Marcus getting high on shrooms just isn’t as wild as Greg Focker spray painting a stray cat’s tail to pass it off as his father-in-law’s lost cat. The outcome is a totally dull affair.
Even more frustrating is the inklings of good ideas they have. The movie makes you think that there is more than meets the eye to the crazy couple. Ron and Kyla constantly allude to their wildly dubious backgrounds throughout the film that it comes off as a setup to some crazy reveal. There’s even a bit early in the film that plays with the idea of something tonally sinister behind who these people are. Sadly, none of those entertaining ideas ever materialize at any point in the film which feels like a complete waste. Their characters are completely laid straight, devoid of any true whimsy that underpins why they are the way they are. Having some kind of spin to these characters would have at least made it a funner watch.
Vacation Friends drops the ball on a lot of things it tries hard to do that not even a fairly good cast can pick it back up. Robert Wisdom, who took The Wire to a whole new level as Bunny Colvin, is fully disserviced by a bad script. Yvonne Orji and Meredith Hagner, who have absolutely killed it in their own respective shows, aren’t really given the space to be funny the way they are in those shows.