COUPLES RETREAT (2009). For all its visual splendor, Couples Retreat never feels as liberating as its locale. Working from a script by Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau and Dana Fox, director Peter Billingsley (A Christmas Story's Ralphie, all grown up) oversees the project more like a foreman making sure the product gets turned out rather than a filmmaker injecting any personal style into the proceedings, leaving it to certain capable actors to provide any juice via well-timed witticisms and double takes. The premise finds married couple Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) imploring their friends to join them on a vacation to an oceanic paradise where the purpose is to reconnect spouses experiencing turbulence in their unions. The other six – overworked but content couple Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Ackerman), bickering spouses Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis), and divorce' Shane (Faizon Love) and his 20-year-old girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk) – are led to believe that the workshops and counseling sessions are optional, but they quickly learn that everyone is required to take part. Before long, nerves are frayed, feelings are hurt, and all the relationships teeter on the edge of disaster. Amidst all the low-simmer shenanigans, Couples Retreat does make some salient (if obvious) points about the inherent difficulties in keeping any marriage fresh and vital. The movie would have benefited from a more realistic ending than the feel-good slop force-fed to audiences by the heaping spoonful, but along the way, it at least feints in the direction of testiness before backing off. Ultimately, though, Couples Retreat is too mellow for its own good. Hardly paradise, it's more like the cinematic equivalent of a leisurely walk around the park.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Vaughn and Billingsley; seven deleted scenes; three extended scenes; an alternate ending; and a seven-minute featurette on filming in Bora Bora.
LAW ABIDING CITIZEN (2009). Vigilante justice in real life is, to put it mildly, highly problematic, but when it comes to cinema, who doesn't occasionally feel some measure of catharsis in watching a sympathetic protagonist skirt around a deeply flawed legal system and exact his revenge on his own terms? Law Abiding Citizen initially appears as if it will be a modern rendition of the black-and-white Death Wish, as loving family man Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) must watch helplessly as his wife and little girl are murdered right in front of him. The killers are apprehended, but while Clyde wants them to pay for their crime, his opportunistic lawyer, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), negotiates a deal. Cut to 10 years later, and Clyde sets out to get his revenge – not only on the criminals but also on the whole judicial system that failed him. Initially, Law Abiding Citizen makes all the right moves, and it's fun to watch Clyde punch holes in the whole manner in which this country handles its criminal cases. But instead of continuing to offer viewers thought-provoking scenarios, this instead turns into an ugly, sordid affair, a gruesome melodrama that, too afraid to tackle the issues it brings up, instead elects to transform into a ridiculous thriller about a psychopath terrorizing a city. Foxx's character is ostensibly supposed to be the hero – or at least turn into one before the end – but Nick Rice remains a shallow, unrepentant lout whose final act is designed to earn audience approval but instead goes down about as easy as spoiled milk. By the end, the murdered wife and daughter are all but forgotten, and Clyde Shelton's pain has been trivialized to an offensive degree. Justice may be blind, but it's got 20/20 vision when compared to this movie that stumbles around in the dark with no hope of providing illumination.
DVD extras include audio commentary by producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel; a 15-minute making-of featurette; and theatrical trailers.
A SERIOUS MAN (2009). Unpredictability is a constant in the Coen Brothers canon, but A Serious Man defies all expectations. In many ways, it feels like a minor effort from Joel and Ethan (a sensation massaged by its modest production values and no-name cast), yet its subject matter is nothing less than man's relationship with God. It's a comedy through and through, yet it frequently carries the weight of a Biblical tragedy. In short, it's unclassifiable -- and also one of the best movies of last year. It audaciously begins with a Yiddish fable set in the far past before switching to the more recent past (1967) via the audible strains of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." Its protagonist is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish teacher whose life start to unravel for no apparent rhyme or reason. His shot at tenure might get compromised by derogatory (and anonymous) letters sent to the school board, he has to contend with a failing student (David Kang) offering him a bribe, his socially inept brother (Richard Kind) is a nuisance and a leech, and his wife (Sari Lennick) has decided to leave him for "a serious man" (Fred Melamed). A weak-willed individual, Larry seeks answers for his Job-like predicament, but will he ultimately embrace his faith or reject it? The mysteries faced by the picture's audiences are no more clear than the mysteries faced by Larry – small wonder, then, that the film's best (or at least most quotable) line is "Accept the mystery" – but then the Coens have never been one to do all the thinking for their fans. A dense and ambiguous work, this Oscar nominee for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay examines the place that religion occupies in this stained world and wonders just how far greater forces should take cause-and-effect when fundamentally decent people are involved. Incidentally, I've raised my rating from the 3-1/2 stars I awarded it during its theatrical run; I've seen it three times now, and it only continues to grow in stature.
DVD extras include an 18-minute making-of piece; a 14-minute featurette on the film's period look; and a 2-minute short, "Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys."