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Vacation Friends Review: Too Much Of A Good Thing

2021 has been a pretty dour year for good mainstream comedy — and unfortunately, that streak continues with the new Hulu flick "Vacation Friends," a movie with a strong premise, a game cast and a handful of great moments undone by serious tonal imbalance. In doses, with specific scenes taken out of context, this is a funny and entertaining film. But those isolated incidents pop so well because it's very likely audience members will zone out sporadically throughout the paint-by-numbers plot.

The movie follows the odd pairing of two couples who meet on a vacation in Mexico. There are our protagonists Marcus (Lil Rel Howery) and Emily (Yvonne Orji), a straitlaced duo on the verge of getting engaged for whom a trip south of the border is an opportunity to escape the external pressures of their daily life. Emily's father (Robert Wisdom) hates and looks down on Marcus as being "only a construction worker," despite Marcus owning his own construction company, and the rest of her family shares that animosity. This trip is supposed to be his chance to prove them wrong snd propose to her in spectacular fashion.

But circumstances thwart his best-laid plans. That is, until they come into contact with Ron (John Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner), a wild couple staying in the presidential suite who take them in and steer them down a path of doing vacation the right way: with as many drugs, as much alcohol, and as few inhibitions as humanly possible. It's a sweet and absurd love story between two couples meant to be a simple fling, a fun time between strangers.

Then some months later, Ron and Kyla crash Marcus and Emily's wedding, and it turns into every other mid-2000s comedy ever made, just with some unique elements that make it hard to pan entirely.

Everybody's got that one friend

Though the film's marketing feels a little one-note, there's something interesting about the nightmare couple Ron and Kyla represent. It's not uncommon to have ancillary supporting figures in your life whose ridiculousness precludes them from featuring as regular, normal fixtures. Strictly wacky guest star material. So when "Vacation Friends" introduces us to these over-the-top caricatures who feel less like real human beings and more like cartoonish assemblages of odd bits comedy writers insist on shoehorning into scripts, it's relatable to view them at arm's length. It feels right to react to them with the kind of revulsion one reserves for a bug buzzing near your flesh.

But with the specific way Marcus and Emily are drawn as put-upon straight men whose real friends and family cause them nothing but stress and pressure, the freewheeling way Cena and Hagner portray their new foils makes them feel like a breath of fresh air.

The premise of "Vacation Friends" is deceptively simple, but muddled by its actual execution. The film should follow a simple three-act structure of presenting an over-the-top couple crackling with big Kramer energy barging in on a perfectly normal vacation for some regular folks. First, introducing and establishing their antics, then bringing them back to the stage in a vastly different setting with higher stakes, followed by some kind of resolution where they find a middle ground in their chaotic presence to slot into Marcus and Emily's lives in a more acceptable manner.

But in the build-up to the wedding, when we the audience know Ron and Kyla are right around the corner, we're introduced to all the other people awaiting their nuptials and all of them are absolutely awful. From Emily's overbearing father to her bougie mother (Lynn Whitfield) and her irritating brother (former Vine star Andrew "King Bach" Bachelor), their lives are densely populated by deeply unpleasant individuals whose stuffy manner and persistent antagonism make Ron and Kyla's drug-fueled hedonism seem, well, like a vacation.

This makes their initial return feel like an entertaining relief when it's being played up as suspense. Ron and Kyla and the strange subplot suggesting Kyla's newfound pregnancy may be tethered to Marcus and Emily in a more direct way are intended to be the source of some awkward cringe humor and the effects that come with shattering social mores at inopportune times. The problem is that they're not only a fun presence in Marcus and Emily's lives, but they actually make the movie more entertaining to watch.

It's hard to root against the only people making this otherwise dime-a-dozen flick feel even a little bit enjoyable as a viewing experience.

So the script, penned by literally five different people, tries to course-correct by ratcheting their behavior up several unnecessary notches, making them come off like selfish sociopaths instead of the lovable weirdos they were presented as in the first act. It comes a little too late, making the third act reversal and search for a happy medium feel strange and un-engaging, the last way you want to describe a comedy this slight and breezy.

The unrivaled power of John Cena

Okay, cards on the table: if you've seen the trailer for this movie, you already know there is literally only one reason to see it and his name is John Cena. Everything about "Vacation Friends" feels like any number of unoriginal spec scripts from the last 20 or so years got left in an air fryer together for too long, handed down through development hell from filmmaker to filmmaker and performer to performer, only to end up quietly dumped on Hulu by Disney in the wake of the Fox deal. 

But Cena, still somewhat new to Hollywood from his lifetime in the WWE, continues his undefeated streak of going all in on the most random supporting roles available. Here, his Ron is a himbo doofus, a former Green Beret with a heart of gold whose motto in life is to just go with the flow. He make a great foil for Marcus, and possesses believable chemistry with Howery that would be better explored elsewhere in a more adventurous film, but it's a pairing that's hard not to love.

Cena, with his unreal muscles, suspiciously wild coif and steadfast ability to deadpan the wildest, most unnatural dialogue in a believable manner, provides one of the best wildman turns in a comedy in decades. Perhaps his background in pro wrestling has prepared him to make the best of even the thinnest, least realistic narratives, but even alongside his very talented co-stars, he stands head and shoulders above them — and this entire movie.

"Vacation Friends" is an incredibly easy movie to skip. It's only funny intermittently, strains credulity at every turn, and is too muddled in its intentions to be a truly satisfying experience. But if there was a good reason to give it a chance, it's to watch Cena do his thing and continue testing the boundaries of what he can do onscreen as a comedic actor. At some point, his agent is going to steer him into taking more traditional fare and more serious dramatic work, something he'll no doubt have real aptitude for. It's just too sweet a treat to see him deliver these unbridled performances as a newcomer not afraid to cut loose with every turn at bat.

Maybe that alone makes it worth a spin on Hulu.