If I sound defensive in my recommendation of Vacation Friends, new in theaters and Hulu/Disney+ this weekend, that’s only because I was its biggest skeptic. It’s fair to say I wouldn’t have walked across the street to see this movie. And yet it turned out to be one of those rare, wonderful experiences as a film critic, in which I force feed myself a film professionally that I had no interest in seeing personally and discover that I was actually wrong about it.
Not that there wasn’t abundant cause for skepticism. Vacation Friends casts in a major role former WWE wrestler John Cena, whose enormous head I’ve admitted in the past that I find “exceptionally unpleasant to look at.” It also seemed like one of those hyper compressed comedy concepts whose title seems to encompass the entirety of it — Night School. Girls Trip. Book Club. Game Night. Fist Fight. Tag. The title is the premise is the poster is the plot. “Vacation Friends,” we know what to expect from that movie: characters hamming it up in a pre-fab premise, lots of winking, “it’s funny because he’s a wrestler,” etc.
Vacation Friends begins exactly the way you’d imagine. Uptight guy Marcus, played by Lil Rel Howery, has taken his soon-to-be fiancée Emily (Yvonne Orji from Insecure) on vacation in Mexico. Only their suite gets ruined before the vacation even begins. This thanks to the blasé, possibly psychopathic couple upstairs — Ron and Kyla, played by John Cena and Meredith Hagner — who have flooded their jacuzzi tub and who Marcus and Emily first saw when Kyla was trying to hit a weed pipe while traveling full speed on the back of Ron’s jet ski. Marcus and Emily end up having to shack up with Ron and Kyla, hijinks ensue, blah blah blah.
Again, we all know exactly what to expect in a movie like this. Lots of awkward situations, the crazy white couple bulldozing the buttoned-up black couple’s boundaries, CGI slapstick, a stylized drug scene, and eventually Marcus learns to loosen up. In the words of the great Tracy Jordan, “This is how white people dial a phone, beep bop booooop…”
Those things are all true of Vacation Friends, but only in the broadest sense. Probably the smartest thing director Clay Tarver (a writer and co-executive producer on Silicon Valley) and his team of screenwriters (*deep breath* Tim Mullen, Tom Mullen, Clay Tarver, Jonathan Goldstein, and John Francis Daley) do is to limit the “Marcus is uptight” storyline to the first 10 or 15 minutes or so. Awkwardness has been vastly overrated as a vector for comedy in recent years, and in Vacation Friends you can feel the correction coming.
The manic bickering you might expect in a film like this mostly evaporates early, Marcus’s reticence, perhaps the most boring quality for a movie character to have, almost immediately overwhelmed by Ron’s relentless positivity. The wide-eyed shouting you expect quickly settles into unlikely bonding situations. I’m not quiet ready to say that John Cena should be carrying major roles in comedy movies yet, but they give him some amazing lines, all edited and paced to perfection. He can’t turn a straight line into a laugh line through performance alone the way Lil Rel or Meredith Hagner can, but the movie mostly doesn’t ask him to.
There’s a racial humor dynamic at play in Vacation Friends, but it’s not the “black people dial a phone like this” jokes you might expect (I mean, there are still a couple). What Vacation Friends does instead is to cast John Cena in the role of the caucasian Magical Negro — the selfless assistant to the lead blessed with supernatural abilities. Not only is this funny in concept — basically anything John Cena plays, with his baby smooth chest and waxed armpits, looking like an anthropomorphic balloon animal with a cinder block for a head, is funny in concept — but also in execution. Ron is sort of an international man of mystery, a park ranger and former Green Beret whose many odd skills include the ability to predict the precise moment when a bird is about to shit. He also has a habit of explaining things that are self-evidently obvious, a perfect job for John Cena.
The effect is that rather than Vacation Friends being a movie about Lil Rel and Yvonne Orji trying to escape a nightmare couple, it takes the shape of a weird four-way friendship that we find ourselves rooting to succeed. It’s not an overt parody of the rom-com format (the way that, say, I Love You, Man was a direct parody of the rom-com format with two dudes bromancing), but it gives the plot precisely the kind of momentum that most of these kinds of movies lack. So often the plot is just a place for the comedic actors to tread water while hamming it up and shouting; in Vacation Friends, we actually, kinda sorta, care what happens.
Vacation Friends isn’t exactly groundbreaking or revolutionary in its comedy — it does have a few stock situations and characters (the extended stylized drug scene, the disapproving father played by Bunny Colvin) — and one could argue that it doesn’t have much in the way of nutritional value. Yet it allows us to enjoy empty calories in a way not many movies of its ilk do, offering just enough to elevate the genre. All of which is to say, it’s pretty fun while it lasts, which is probably all it ever aspired to be.