Just as it’s easy to imagine “The Hangover” being transformed, with relatively minor script tinkering, into a deadly serious film noir, one can envision an early draft of “Vacation Friends” serving as the blueprint for a paranoid thriller about vacationers who discover much too late that their new acquaintances are aggressively chummy for all the wrong reasons.
Indeed, there is a teasing hint in an early scene of director Clay Tarver’s comedy that at least one of those acquaintances may have sinister ulterior motives. And that impression is shrewdly enhanced by the inspired casting of Jon Cena, a superstar WWE grappler who’s proven capable of suggesting dark undercurrents — or, in the case of the recent “F9,” raising those currents to flood level — even when he’s demonstrating his comic chops.
But no: There’s no tonal switcheroo comparable to Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” here. Truth to tell, there are no great surprises at all in the script Tarver (“Silicon Valley”) has stitched together with Tom Mullen, Tim Mullen, Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley. On the other hand, “Vacation Friends” does earn a fair share of guffaws with its familiar mix of R-rated raunch and feel-good sentiment, and it’s lightly amusing to see the well-cast players breathe a satisfying degree of fresh life into a predictable scenario that recalls “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” “What About Bob?” and a dozen or so similarly contrived comedies.
Lil Rel Howery, currently on view in “Free Guy,” plays (quite deftly) the repeatedly frazzled straight-man of the piece: Marcus, a construction company owner whose sassy wisecracks only partially mitigate his natural tendencies as a buttoned-down workaholic. He’s eager to reveal a warmer romantic side by taking his longtime girlfriend, Emily (Yvonne Orji), on a vacation at a posh Mexican resort where he plans to propose. Once they arrive, however, he’s greatly disappointed, and more than a little peeved, to discover the expensive room he’s booked for them has been wrecked by water damage caused by a jacuzzi overflow in an upstairs suite.
Ron (Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner), the free-spirited inhabitants of that suite, are eager to make amends for inadvertently raining on their party, and invite the initially wary couple to claim the extra bedroom in their opulent accommodations. But their conviviality doesn’t end there: Ron and Kyla immediately embrace Marcus and Emily as their new besties, and convince them to come along for a week-long, hearty-partying binge of drunken revels, risky misadventures, sporadic drug sampling and explorations of the local night-life. (Note the wink-wink moment when Cena’s Ron takes a look at a low-rent wrestling match and exclaims: “Anybody can do that!”) Everything leads to an impulsive wedding ceremony overseen by a local shaman — followed by another night of heavy drinking, and a morning after that finds Marcus and Emily unable to remember just what they did, or who they did it with.
Naturally, Ron and Kyla want to remain in close contact with Marcus and Emily after they return home to, respectively, Oregon and Georgia. Just as naturally, Marcus and Emily makes vague promises to reconnect while fully intending to treat the other couple merely as, well, vacations friends. Seven months later, however, Marcus and Emily are preparing for a lavish destination wedding fully financed by Harold (Robert Wisdom), Emily’s snooty rich father, when … guess who shows up uninvited.
Hagner strikes an amusing balance of foul-mouthed trailer-park pixie and dedicated New Age homeopathist, often coming off as an even more uninhibited version of the lovable ditzes that used to be Goldie Hawn’s stock in trade. She’s the perfect match for Cena, who never expresses anything but thoroughgoing sincerity throughout Ron’s uninhibited rowdiness — which serves him when well whenever Ron coaxes a chronically reluctant Marcus into the most outrageous behavior. Orji reacts to the rampant chaos with appealing poise, subtly indicating that maybe, just maybe, Emily has been itching to take a walk on the wild side long before she met Ron and Kyla.
The backstory provided for Ron — he’s a former Green Beret whose arduous experiences have left him with an industrial-grade live-for-the-day, go-for-the-gusto attitude — might read like a moldy cliché in a plot synopsis. But that element of Ron’s character comes in handy when he’s able to impress Harold more than Marcus ever has. And it helps to trigger the movie’s funniest sequence, one involving Ron, Marcus, Harold, magic mushrooms and clowning around. It’s a sequence, not incidentally, that gives Howery the very best of his several opportunities to go for the big laughs. And, much like Ron, he seizes the moment.
“Vacation Friends” will stream exclusively as a Hulu Original in the U.S., and internationally on Disney+ as a Star Original.