John Cena will be a movie star one day soon. Just not with this film.
Vacation Friends might not be the first release from 20th Century Studios, but by any rational measure you can muster, this is mediocre stuff. For an hour and forty minutes, Vacation Friends creates a comedy vacuum. Meredith Hagner, Lil Rel Howery, and Anna Maria Horsford stand alongside John Cena in what can best be described as a travesty.
Playing two couples with radically different outlooks on life, this is a culture clash comedy without the laughs. Cena and Hagner are free-spirited partners, while their co-stars provide the uptight angle. Resort disasters force them together, while cocaine before breakfast keeps things interesting. That this film then takes the premise away from Mexico and into everyday life only makes things worse.
Howery populates a role better suited to Kevin Hart, while the cantankerous father-in-law riff gets gifted to Robert Wisdom. Elsewhere, Horsford clings on for dear life as wife Nancy, trying to conjure up countless levels of exasperation. That she comes out of this only slightly better than Hagner is a miracle, as neither actress is given anything to do. On the rare occasion that they are allowed to act rather than react, their dialogue adds little drama.
Every cliche that audiences can imagine is thrown into the blender here, as bad situations stack up like dominoes. Unbelievable events drive these people apart, before pushing them back together again. Each of the film’s five writers try to jumpstart this comedy with consistently ill-judged zingers. Every effort elicits nothing more than the sound of cinematic tumbleweed.
Wedding ceremonies, magic mushrooms, and bad visual effects only complicate matters. Cena is charming, boisterous, and kind hearted as Ron, while Hagner pulls off the same trick as Kyla. Of the two, only he really gets away with this. He seems oblivious to the fact that Vacation Friends is a huge waste of his time, while audiences will most likely give up after thirty minutes when that penny drops.
There comes a point later on where Robert Wisdom is made up like a circus clown. Staring back from beneath exaggerated make-up, Cena’s Ron and Howery’s Marcus try not to laugh. It is a sad indictment of Vacation Friends that this example could be classed as the funniest moment. Tonally awkward, emotionally vacuous, and neither working as drama nor comedy, audiences will sit there slack-jawed and bewildered.
In fact, if this film had any redeeming features beyond its slim running time, Cena would be amongst them. With carefully selected roles in Trainwreck, Bumblebee, and the forthcoming Peacemaker, there is clearly a game plan. However, Vacation Friends feels more like a contractual obligation than any conscious decision to test the iconic wrestler-turned-actor.
The whole affair is reminiscent of an old Robin Williams film called Club Paradise, which featured Peter O’Toole and Rick Moranis. Written and directed by Harold Ramis, that flick had no idea what it wanted to be either, despite all the stars involved. Vacation Friends has a similar vibe without the exotic locations or hairy hyperactive headliner.
Every action star on his way up changes tack at some point and tries something else, whether we are talking Vin Diesel in The Pacifier or Arnold Schwarzenegger for Kindergarten Cop. And Matthew McConaughey and Katie Hudson forged careers out of these romcom films. But at least they had the writing to back it up. Vacation Friends never falls flat because everything about it is pedestrian to begin with. This misstep from Cena sits on shakier ground than Justin Timberlake’s turn in The Love Guru.
With the move away from screeners in favor of physical screenings, it is interesting that Vacation Friends gets to bypass cinemas completely. However, for those who think that Disney is having a change of heart after refusing to offer up digital options for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, think again. Simply put, the Mouse House believes that Vacation Friends will find a more receptive audience outside of theaters. Don’t count on it.