Movie Review ~ Vacation Friends

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple meets up with another couple while on vacation in Mexico, but their friendship takes an awkward turn when they get back home.

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

Director: Clay Tarver

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’ve a sneaking suspicion that had Vacation Friends arrived on schedule before production was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that I might not have been as keen to it as I wound up being.  Let’s be clear, this is one of those Jumbo Margarita drinks of a film. The kind with sugar on the rim instead of salt.  It’s meant to melt your troubles away as a carefully designed frothy concoction of the easiest parts of a comedy (slapstick, foul language, embarrassing situations) that’s served up in a sweet package to go down easier than it ever really should.  Toss in a game quartet of leads and a director smart enough to let his actors do most of the work in helping move the dial toward success and you have a perfect blend for a sunny summer comedy that aims to please.

Marcus (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and his girlfriend Emily (Yvonne Orji, Night School) have arrived at their luxury Mexican resort to a less than amazing reception.  Their room is flooded thanks to the couple above them leaving the water running in their massive jacuzzi. This not only leaves Marcus and Emily without a place to stay but it seriously messes up the planned proposal Marcus had organized for Emily.  Just as Marcus is about to lose his cool, the other couple shows up and hearing about the newly engaged arrivals insists that the room-less duo stay with them…at least for the evening.  Ron (John Cena, Dolittle) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner, Brightburn) like to party and after loosening up their new guests with a little adult beverage and perhaps an illegal substance or two, the four spend the next days on adventures before their final night when things get a little too out of control.

Seven months later it’s time for wedding bells to ring for Emily and Marcus, but at their Atlanta welcome reception who should show up but their friends from Mexico, shocked to not receive an invite to the nuptials.  Now it’s Marcus and Emily’s turn to host Ron and Kyla for the week, during which time they’ll learn more about the brazen pair they barely knew for a few days in Mexico and also find out how Kyla got pregnant…even though Ron had previously told them he couldn’t have children.  Could something have happened that last night in Mexico that no one can remember?  As the wedding date draws near and tensions rise between Marcus and Emily’s father (Robert Wisdom, The Dark Knight Rises), revelations come to light that might alter the “I Do’s” to “I Don’ts”.

What’s nice to see is that the trailer for Vacation Friends leaves out a large chunk of the movie that takes place in Mexico…and that’s a decent amount of laughs audiences have yet to discover.  Though written by five screenwriters (oy, five?), the script doesn’t seem as choppy as the writing staff would suggest, not even when the film gets to a third act that could quite easily have gotten messy with a number of plot points to juggle.  Director Clay Tarver mostly turns the film over to the likes of Howery and Cena and gives them mostly free reign to have fun with both their roles and the script – smart move.  While we know Howery could make magic out of mice droppings, Cena’s timing is spot-on throughout and in his third movie of the summer (F9: The Fast Saga in June, The Suicide Squad in early August) he finally strikes at the golden role he’s been working toward.  The tightly wound Howery’s immeasurable charm certainly helps keep things movie as well.  Let’s not forget the contributions of Orji or Hagner either, both women hold their own alongside their partners and often outshine them in their own individual scenes. And hey, it was nice to see them being given these scenes in the first place when all the screenwriters are men!

I’d dock Vacation Friends a few points for failing to utilize a talented supporting cast of veteran actors like Chuck Cooper, Lynn Whitfield, and Anna Maria Horsford more thoroughly and also because it tends to lose all of its steam in several big huffs along the way to the altar, which starts to tire you out near the end.  It has to work with some efficiency to get back into its groove, and it eventually does, but moments like a strange drug trip in the forest come off like a bad idea that no one had the nerve to shoot down.  Not for nothing, but I was never less than completely amused and engaged for the entire length of the feature. Perhaps it was just the right movie for my mood at that particular moment, or maybe Vacation Friends is just a solid chunk of entertainment that isn’t (and doesn’t have to) unseat anything at the box office.

Movie Review ~ Brittany Runs a Marathon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman living in New York takes control of her life- one block at a time.

Stars: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Sarah Bolt, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If you take a step back and look at the films released this summer and don’t consider the box office returns, it’s been a good year for female-led movies.  Finding their way to theaters (but, sadly, not always wide audiences) were Booksmart, Late Night, The Farewell, and maybe, if you’re feeling generous, even The Hustle.  All had strong points of view and boldly entered the arena, often in direct competition to highly anticipated and better advertised franchise blockbusters.  Aside from The Farewell, which continues to build on positive word of mouth, these movies suggested changing tides of appetite only to find themselves in discounted theaters within weeks of their release dates.  Destined to find their audiences when they hit streaming services, it doesn’t diminish the sting of feeling these should have done better.

The latest movie likely to fall under the same scrutiny is Brittany Runs a Marathon and it might just stand the best shot of breaking the cycle of summer underperformers.  Directed by Off-Broadway playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo making his feature film debut and inspired by the life of his best friend, this is a charming comedy that finds a nice balance between humor and drama.   I found a lot to laugh at within the movie but an equal amount of the time I was struck by how insightful it was into the inward struggle we all face when standing in front of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Approaching 30 and yet to shed the carefree lifestyle that worked for her in her early 20s, Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell, Office Christmas Party) works as a part time usher at a small NYC theater and doesn’t do much else.  Her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee, Wish Upon) is dating a handsome Wall Street-type and enjoys partying and late nights just as much as Brittany does.  Visting her doctor in hopes of snagging a prescription for Adderall, she instead leaves with a recommendation to lose forty to fifty pounds to avoid ongoing health concerns.  Having an “a-ha” moment, Brittany takes stock of her situation, where she is, and where she wants to be. Unable to afford a gym, she begins to run outdoors, eventually joining a running group on the suggestion of Catherine, (Michaela Watkins, Wanderlust) a woman in her building.  Teaming up with Catherine and another newbie runner Seth, (Micah Stock), the trio set their sights on training for the NYC Marathon, each with their own personal reasons for wanting to cross the finish line.

To earn extra money, Brittany becomes a daytime house/dog sitter, eventually meeting Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect) who takes over for her at night.  While the two squabble like brother and sister at first, it isn’t hard to see where the good-natured fighting will lead…though it does take an intelligent route getting there.  As Brittany continues to train and sees her body changing, she overlooks that it was never about an outward change that needed to happen but an adjustment from within that was necessary.  Unable to be vulnerable even with her closest friends or accept their support in the simplest of matters, Brittany may lose everything she’s worked for if she can’t knock down the walls she’s put up to defend herself.

On the surface, Brittany Runs a Marathon might look like your standard offering of girl makes a change to better herself and the wacky ways she does it but Colaizzo isn’t interested in doing anything the old-fashioned way.  Yes, the movie is packed with humor both smart and smart-alecky but there’s never a time when the script is out to make fun of its title character.  It doesn’t spare her, though, from being held to the same human decency standard as everyone else.  Just as we wince when low blows are leveled at Brittany, when she does the same to another person late in the film, we hold her accountable as well.  Kudos to actress Sarah Bolt for her small role being on the receiving end of a particularly nasty putdown from Brittany and for the way she responds — it’s easily a top highlight of the movie.

I’m used to Bell’s more raunchy and ribald performances, often broad and playing to the back wall of the theater next door to the one you’re in.  So, it’s refreshing to see her, not so much restrained, but offering up a different side that’s just as entertaining.  She’s in every scene so if we didn’t like the character or the actress the movie would be in big trouble, but Bell clearly was the right person for this job.  The performance is strong and arguably one of the best of the year.  I also liked Ambudkar as her comic and romantic counterpart.  There’s a chemistry in both areas and that goes a long way in keeping the less funny moments afloat.  Watkins and Stock do serviceable supporting work, though some late breaking efforts to bring their personal lives into the mix feels like Colaizzo biting off more than he can chew in 103 minutes.  I’d rather have learned more about Brittany’s backstory, the only information we get are in snippets from her brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and even those are sometimes hard to track.

I think it’s important to look at the movie not for what it’s putting Brittany through but what the ultimate goal is.  The point of the movie isn’t for us to watch her lose weight.  It isn’t about her running the marathon.  It’s a way to show there is value in everyone no matter what they are capable of or hope to achieve.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness and offering help is not a sign you don’t believe in someone’s ability.  That Colaizzo is able to weave that message in among a hearty supply of appealing situational comedy and lively performances is a real gift.