Movie Review: Lil Rel, Cena, Hagner and Orji are just “Vacation Friends”

Fun fact, “Vacation Friends” was set up as a comedy to star the then-married Anna Faris and Chris Pratt — back in 2014. Was that even its first incarnation?

The point is, this pitch was funny enough to make the rounds for years, promising enough for actors to sign onto and worth throwing five credited screenwriters at. Well, five that we know of.

And it still turned out like this.

Wisecracker and master-reactor Lil Rel Howery and John Cena in gonzo comic mode — cliff diving and boat wrecking, drug tripping and wedding crashing, fox hunting and baby begetting, all thrown against the wall in a comedy that rarely stays on its feet long enough to amount to anything.

Howery (“Get Out,””Free Guy”) is Marcus, a “control freak” Chicago building contractor who only wants this Mexican vacation with his girlfriend Emily (Yvonne Orji of “Night School,” and TV’s “Insecure”) to come off, for his Big Gesture proposal in their resort suite to be perfect.

But it doesn’t. That flooded hotel room upstairs and the devil-may-care couple staying in it sees to that.

Ron (Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner of “Set it Up” and TV’s “Search Party”) are YOLO/”live for the moment” working class lovers who blew every cent they have on this trip. Each of them is an open book, and both of them together are open-hearted enough to “save” Marcus and Emily’s trip. They’ll share their penthouse suite with them.

The uptight, accomplished Chicagoans will learn to “loosen up” at the feet of folks whose chief privilege is their irresponsibility. A toast! Margaritas all around! But uh, that’s not salt on the rim of the glass, kids. That’s “blow,” “Bolivian marching powder,” cocaine.

It’s all downhill from there, thanks to the “fun” couple that never learned when to say “When.”

Practical jokes with an edge, cliff diving in the dark, catamaran-wrecking in the broad daylight, all with a buzz on, this is a vacation to remember. Well, what they can remember of it, anyway. And when it’s done?

“You guys are in our lives now,” Ron, with a hint of menace in his voice, says as they depart. “Nothing’s ever gonna change that!”

Not even the high-stress/high-toned society wedding that Emily and Marcus don’t invite them to. But just wait until that pickup truck “crashes” it, with Ron and Kyla facing Emily’s snobby parents (Lynn Whitfield and Robert Wisdom), her punk-snob brother (Andrew Bachelor, funny) and all the upper echelon events (high stakes golf, a fox hunt, rehearsal dinner) that go with it.

The pitch for this was perfectly reasonable, that “what happens on vacation stays on vacation” dynamic of “Couples Retreat,” “The Heartbreak Kid” all the way back to “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation,” an ancient James Stewart/Maureen O’Hara vehicle.

On an allegorical level, it’s a comedy built on the “real” rift between The Two Americas — the careful and the careless.

But this feels forced, right from the start. Everybody has to lean into the would-be laughs too hard because they’re uncertain there’s another one coming again any time soon.

The situations are recycled and dully predictable. Of COURSE Ron throws big money bets into this golf foursome, of COURSE he’s sandbagging it. Of COURSE Ron and the insufferable father-in-law have a secret bond.

The drugged-up bits aren’t awful, and under-credited (he’s been “working” a long time, without much success) director Clay Tarver almost gets a laugh by filming the 40 foot catamaran wreck in long shot so — you know — they don’t have to actually wreck a $350,000 sailboat.

But as Barry Sonnenfeld (“Get Shorty”) decreed, comedy is a close-up medium. That was never going to play as funny. And if you can’t make “getting stoned and going on a fox hunt” funny, maybe comedy isn’t your thing.

Lil Rel’s over-the-top reactions aren’t far enough over-the-top, and Cena letting it all hang out (ahem) is only funny once or twice. Bachelor is the only supporting player, save for Carlos Santos, perfectly smarmy as an inept concierge, to come close to hitting comic paydirt.

This thing winds up being about as funny as the reason Anna Faris and Chris Pratt weren’t able to star in it.

Rating: R for drug content, crude sexual references, and language throughout

Cast: Lil Rel Howery, John Cena, Yvonne Orji, Meredith Hagner, Andrew Bachelor, Lynn Whitfield and Robert Wisdom

Credits: Directed by Clay Tarver, scripted by Tom Mullen, Tim Mullen, Clay Tarver, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. A 20th Century Studios/Hulu release.

Running time: 1:47

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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