Vacation Friends is the kind of movie we’re talking about when we say studios aren’t making mid-budget comedies anymore. It belongs to a shrinking class of movies driven by solid comic writing and performances over pyrotechnics and recognizable IP. That’s not to say Clay Tarver’s movie, co-scripted by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, is a particularly great example of that model. While it’s still enjoyable, Vacation Friends lacks the character arcs and tight narrative of Daley and Goldstein’s Game Night (the current gold standard of sleeper hit mid-budget comedies), falling somewhere around the middle of “fine.”
When Marcus (Lil Rel Howery) and Emily (Yvonne Orji) arrive at a spa in Mexico, Marcus has elaborate plans to propose. Those plans are complicated somewhat by Ron (John Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner), who unintentionally sabotage the couple’s suite, then invite Marcus and Emily to stay with them for the week. The uptight Marcus is intimidated by Ron and Kyla’s freewheeling, drug-friendly lifestyle (they kick things off with cocaine-rimmed margaritas), but both he and Emily open up and enjoy their company. Things get weird seven months later, when Ron and a very pregnant Kyla show up uninvited to Marcus and Emily’s wedding, with Ron playing defensive wingman to Marcus as he contends with Emily’s disapproving family.
It feels a touch unfair to keep comparing Vacation Friends to Game Night, but in this case, doing so points out structurally what keeps this film from reaching those same satisfying heights. Game Night set clear stakes and internal conflicts that Vacation Friends keeps relatively generalized. Ron and Kyla live life on the edge, but they aren’t completely unhinged, nor do they come with many surprises. Marcus’ tense relationship with Emily’s family is predicated solely on the fact that her parents and brother are classist jerks, not that both sides have hang-ups they need to get over. Even Marcus’ concern that the foursome’s last night of partying in Mexico resulted in him unintentionally fathering Kyla’s baby mostly gets brushed under the rug. Rather than go all in on one idea, Tarver and the screenwriters jump around to different ones, with muddled results.
The central quartet of performances lift matters significantly. Howery and Orji make a believable, solid couple, and Howery’s tightly-wound frustration finds a good foil in Cena’s game, easygoing goofball. Cena and Hagner commit to their characters’ brand of crazy, and one-up each other frequently, leading to some solid one-liners. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t utilize Hagner’s formidable comic talent nearly as much as it should, spending much more time with Cena and Howery and giving the women short shrift.
While a studio comedy with little else on its mind other than delivering some good laughs doesn’t necessarily require dense critical scrutiny, it’s a little frustrating to see a movie like this phone it in when it’s been proven that doing better is possible. It’s not too hard to see where certain writing improvements or more creative directing choices could have made Vacation Friends a surprise success. Unfortunately, it shoots for par, and just barely makes it.
“Vacation Friends” streams Friday on Hulu.