‘Vacation Friends’ is a callback to good comedy films. But it fails horribly
‘Vacation Friends’ is a rated-R comedy that plays off something we all experience — vacation friends who come back with us
You’d be hard-pressed to find major comedies in the theaters these days. Most comedic acting comes in the form of quick quips or little jokes thrown into superhero blockbusters. More comedies emerge on television right now between reboots of famous comedy shows or reruns of “The Office.” The traditional comedy film — films like “Bruce Almighty” or “Anchorman” — are hard to find in the modern era.
Enter “Vacation Friends,” a new comedy film that is as classic as it comes when we’re talking pure comedy, even if it is overly crude.
It should be said from the beginning that “Vacation Friends” is a mature comedy. It is full of sexual jokes, mature language and drug use. It’s a cross between “The Hangover” and “Couples Retreat.” You might even call it a modern version of “Wedding Crashers.” It’s not something you’ll see in movie theaters, either, as it’s an exclusive release to Hulu, and is only available through streaming (and, as director Clay Tarver told me, that was always the plan). It’s not something you’d want to watch with children in the room, either. To put it one way, it’s something you’d watch if you’re a fan of using VidAngel filters.
Seriously, the movie is — for lack of a better term — stupid. It’s full of partying, drugs, curse words. It’s seriously not a good movie. But there’s something important about the film that we should be talking about — “Vacation Friends” is an example of a dying film genre (and it doesn’t help that “Vacation Friends” is full of modern comedy tropes, like drinking and partying). The best comedies often take a relatively real circumstance that we can all envision and identify with, and turns those moments on their head. It makes light of real-world scenarios that we see ourselves in. It places us in the middle of something we could experience, but then everything turns wacky. And, though it has mature language and themes throughout, “Vacation Friends” does all of that. It reminds me of the days of classic comedy films where we poke fun at ourselves and our own lives, bringing positive life to a normally dull world.
Here’s how the story goes (I am not going to share the trailer with you because it’s almost as rated-R as the movie). “Vacation Friends” tells the story of Marcus (Lil Rel Howery) and Emily (Yvonne Orji), who meet a pair of friends, Ron (John Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner), on a vacation. And then, by chance, Ron and Kyla show up at Marcus and Emily’s wedding — after the vacation is over. So begins a number of hijinks and hilarity.
So you can imagine this as a story. You and your significant other are on vacation in Hawaii. You meet a couple. You become deep friends who bond over the Honolulu sunsets. And then, well, that’s it. You say goodbye to these friends and you might never see them again. But then time will pass and all you have are memories. You can remember the other couple and the memories you had. But it's unlikely you see them again.
So “Vacation Friends” turns that idea on its head, showing us a world in which those friends come back into your life. What happens when vacation friends join your life? What happens when the memories become constant friends?
“I definitely connected with the premise of the thing that felt so relatable,’ Tarver, the director, told me. “We’ve all gone on vacation or travel and you meet somebody and you have like the best night of your life, or week, and you maybe get out of your comfort zone a little bit. You meet people that get you into a little bit of trouble and it’s fun for a week. And maybe you overshare and bond a little too much. And at the end of it, you’re like ‘OK, that was fun for a bit but now I got to get back to my real life.’ And this movie is sort of like what happens if they come to your real life.”
Relatability is the key to the story, Tarver told me. The best comedy is often built off relatable situations, he said. When we connect with comedy and when we understand that comedy, we find it funnier because it’s a mirror to our own lives.
And it could have existed at any time, Tarver said. Whether you’re traveling on a train in the 1940s or flying on a plane in 1995, the vacation idea is so relatable. Sure, the drinking and drugs aren’t relatable for all, but the idea of the vacation friends coming into your life does have a semblance of normality.
“I love movies like that, like ‘Meet the Parents.’ it’s the same thing. Everybody knows what it’s like to fear meeting your parents. Or ‘The Hangover’ — you wake up the next morning. What happened to me?” Tarver explained.
He added, “I love comedies that are really that strong and clear and so to me this is like a movie I knew I could really sink my teeth into.”
“Vacation Friends” is relatable because it brings us into a world that we know. So we understand it. But things become a little fantastical and outlandish. Sure, we don’t understand the moments second-for-second. I personally can’t identify with partying in Mexico, or some of the other big moments in the movie (I’ll save you from having to hear about the grotesque nature of how these friends became so close). But we can definitely envision a world where we meet new friends and they come crawling back into our world.
More important, “Vacation Friends” leans into another major aspect of comedy that connects to relatability — positivity. Comedies are — and I know this is a little outlandish — meant to be funny. They’re meant to be lighthearted and not something that requires too much thinking or any detective sleuthing through a cinematic universe.
“One of the things I really like about it is that it’s got good vibes,” Tarver told me. “It’s not a mean-spirited movie. There are still too many things that go disastrously wrong but it’s all coming from kind of a good place.”
As Tarver pointed out, “Vacation Friends” is coming along at a time of great division. The United States is increasingly divided both across culture, politics and whatever else happens. You can’t tweet out an opinion without someone coming after you. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans are increasingly divided based on their political affiliations. And the United States isn’t alone in that. Countries across the world struggle with their own political divides, too.
Comedy is feeling the brunt of that division. Comedy can sometimes make fun of a culture or an idea, only amplifying the division between groups. For example, the HBO Max show “White Lotus” was a dark comedy that provided a glimpse at white privilege. Similarly, the 2019 film “The Hunt” was a dig at elite liberals and hardcore conservatives all at once, satirizing the culture war.
But true comedy needs to unite. True comedy brings you into a world you understand and makes you laugh about it, Tarver said. “Vacation Friends” makes you laugh about the real world, making you feel better about the people surrounding you.
“There are times when a really harsh, mean-spirited, look-down-on-people comedy, can be really funny and pointed,” Tarver said. “But right now, I just kind of feel like we need something that is like good vibes, you know? And I feel like this has good vibes.”
For the record, I don’t recommend you watch this movie. It’s full of mature language, curses, drug use and sexual language that is a little overbearing. But when you see this film on your Hulu feed this week, just remember that it’s a sign that what makes comedy great — a story we can relate to — still exists.