The first 20th Century Studios movie for Hulu is an abysmal endeavor in countless ways.
It’s apparent that anyone at Disney or 20th Century Studios wanted with Vacation Friends was a 100-minute movie to accompany a thumbnail of John Cena and Lil Rel Howery on the front page of Hulu. That’s it. There’s no other purpose to this film’s existence. It’s just another piece of “content” that can gather dust on Hulu. Save for Space Jam: A New Legacy, you won’t find a more fitting representation in the summer of 2021 of what hollow cinema the age of algorithms and monopolistic streaming services has wrought. Put simply, Vacation Friends makes Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates look like Safety Last!
On vacation in Mexico, Marcus (Howery) is planning on proposing to his girlfriend Emily (Yvonne Orji). Unfortunately, the hotel suite that was supposed to serve as the backdrop for this proposal turns out to be flooded. Director Clay Tarver, making his feature-film directorial debut, establishes his inability to execute comedy early on by drawing out the reveal to this devastated hotel room for so long that the inevitable punchline becomes apparent from the get-go. The comic timing is way off in this sequence and that kind of perplexing execution persists throughout the rest of the runtime.
Anyway, though the hotel room is a bust, Marcus and Emily do manage to commit to getting married and also run into rowdy couple Ron (Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner). These two aren’t exactly conventional, but Marcus and Emily have a lot of drug-fueled fun with the duo. Once their vacation is done, the attention of Marcus and Emily switches over to focusing on the wedding, and particularly on getting Emily’s dad (Robert Wisdom) onboard with Marcus. As the wedding arrives, Ron and Kyla crash back into the couple’s lives, now bringing chaos wherever they go.
From there, screenwriters Tom Mullen & Tim Mullen, Clay Tarver, and Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley proceed to trot all the expected narrative routes for a mainstream American comedy. For example, Ron and Kyla instantly get along with family members that Marcus and Emily failed to connect with. Meanwhile, there are all kinds of wacky comedic shenanigans, like a trip to the golf course, that seem like they’ll inevitably go haywire before getting wrapped up like a tidy bow.
All of it’s delivered without an ounce of personality, humor, or even just basic fun. Nothing in Tarver’s execution of these gags suggests even an ounce of personality. Even the debauchery is basic stuff for this genre, references to cocaine and people talking about “balls”. The premise is so thoughtlessly assembled that all the supporting characters just begin to have a loud fight for seemingly no other reason than to wake up viewers who have (understandably) fallen asleep on their couches.
The mechanical surface-level execution of Vacation Friends does make one plot detail stand out, though for all the wrong reasons. The climax of all the Mexico partying leaves Marcus drunkenly snoozing on the couch. At one point, he wakes up and finds Kyla on top of him, grinding and thrusting. It’s clearly meant to indicate that she’s having sex with an unconscious Marcus, which is rape pure and simple. Because this is a man getting raped by a woman, Vacation Friends just uses this development to spur on a derivative pregnancy subplot.
Because this is a man getting raped by a woman, Vacation Friends just uses this development to spur on a derivative pregnancy subplot.
Though some dialogue from Emily at the end tries to handwave this development away, it’s still staggering that Vacation Friends tries to have the tone of an ABC sitcom while hinging much of its plot on sexual assault. The most charitable interpretation of this tone-deaf decision is that everyone involved in this project was so deeply going through the motions that they never bothered to consider the implications of this story detail. No matter what the intent, it’s still a repulsive element shows how little Vacation Friends truly cares about what’s on-screen.
That lack of care is also apparent in the slapdash visual details, which include some truly awful green-screen work used to realize an important cave location. Meanwhile, only a brief drug trip scene see’s Tarver showing any kind of care in terms of what lenses or colors he’s using in a given scene. Otherwise, Vacation Friends is a visually forgettable experience, which tends to undermine attempts at visual gags. It’s not new to see a modern American comedy look this bad, but it never gets any less frustrating. Haven’t these filmmakers seen crisply realized modern comedies like Booksmart or Game Night? These movies don’t have to look this stale!
As for the actors assembled in Vacation Friends are all mostly a wash who’ve delivered better work elsewhere. It appears you can’t bring Lil Rel Howery into a movie without him delivering one or two chuckles. However. having him be a straight man to Ron and Kyla’s antics robs him of chances to utilize his best talents as a comedic performer. Meanwhile, Meredith Hagner delivers the best lines in the movie (namely throwaway pieces of obliviously dark dialogue) but she too often comes off like she’s doing an Anna Faris-lite routine.
Then there’s John Cena, playing a coked-up quasi-himbo. Cena’s actually delivered good work as a film actor in the past, but it’s usually portraying straight-laced guys responding to wacky stuff happening around him, like in Trainwreck or Blockers. Being an engine of chaos is a conceptually interesting departure for him, I just wish it didn’t come off as so frequently strained. Ron’s whole thing is about “floating” through life, but Cena’s performance is trying way too hard to make you giggle. Then again, maybe Cena wouldn’t be distractingly forceful in his presence if the script gave him more quality lines or physical comedy to work with.
Even with some talented actors at its disposal, Vacation Friends can’t muster up the energy to be anything distinctive beyond becoming a brief Waffle House advertisement in its climax. But that’s the nature of “content”, it doesn’t have to be good, it just must exist to fill up a streaming service’s library of titles. I’m sure that’s what Daryl F. Zanuck and the other founders of 20th Century Fox had in mind for this studio when they first brought it to life. But even divorced from troubling trends in the modern world of cinema, Vacation Friends would still be an awful movie and the worst kind of comedy: one devoid of laughs.
Vacation Friends hits Hulu for some problematic summer fun August 27th.