Lil Rel Howery and John Cena in Hulu’s ‘Vacation Friends’: Film Review

A resort getaway turns into an adventure in unlikely friendship between two couples in this Mexico-set comedy.

Vacation Friends, raunchy and occasionally amusing, begins with a proposal gone awry. Marcus (Lil Rel Howery), a rule-following, schedule-obsessed businessman, plans to ask the love of his life, Emily (Yvonne Orji), to marry him during their vacation in Mexico. But disaster strikes the minute the couple step into the palatial lobby of their luxury resort. The jacuzzi in the presidential suite, the room directly above theirs, has overflowed and flooded their would-be romantic abode. The crisp white sheets are soaked, the red rose petals drowned. With the resort booked to capacity, Marcus and Emily find themselves without a place to stay.

Directed by Clay Tarver (Silicon Valley), the film chronicles the aftermath of Marcus and Emily’s unfortunate dilemma and what happens when they cross paths with Ron (John Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner), another couple staying at the resort. Vacation Friends is a droll and mildly salacious flick that revels in subverting the expectations of its central characters and, eventually, its viewers.

Vacation Friends

The Bottom Line

Come for the laughs, stay for the performances.

Release Date: Friday, Aug. 27
Cast: John Cena, Lil Rel Howery, Yvonne Orji, Meredith Hagner
Director: Clay Tarver
Screenwriters: Tom Mullen, Tim Mullen, Clay Tarver, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley

Rated R,
1 hour 43 minutes

It tangentially concerns itself with lessons about class prejudice to drive the narrative but doesn’t commit enough to character development to make that a satisfying thread. Nevertheless, fine performances from Howery and Cena, a few chuckle-worthy jokes and some surprising plot twists will be enough to keep most viewers engaged.

After coming to terms with Plan A’s epic fail, Marcus, not one to be quick on his feet, asks Emily to marry him in the hotel lobby. His bumbling but sincere speech attracts the attention of Ron and Kyla, a white couple staying in the suite that caused the flooding. (They left the jacuzzi running while out exploring.) Moved by Marcus’ proposal and guilt-ridden by their mistake, Ron and Kyla invite Marcus and Emily to stay in their room. The newly engaged couple says yes, but not without hesitation, setting off a weeklong bender of drugs, drinking and diving off cliffs.

It’s clear from the quartet’s adventures, which constitute the first half-hour of the film, that the couples’ differences outnumber their similarities. Marcus and Emily are well-to-do, risk-averse Black people from Chicago. He’s “self-made” and owns a construction business; she’s a lawyer from a family of esteemed academics. Ron and Kyla come from humbler roots: He is a park ranger, and she works in a doctor’s office. They’re thrill seekers who emphatically proclaim that they don’t believe in saving money.

While the film emphasizes the couples’ different temperaments, it avoids explaining what precisely allows Ron and Kyla to live without inhibition. The answer is race. But the refusal to acknowledge this tension, even casually, does a disservice to attempts at a broader class discourse.

On the morning of their flight, Marcus and Emily are brutally hungover and ready to return to their lives. When they run into Ron and Kyla at the airport, they’re shocked and confused by the other couple’s insistence that they stay in touch. Out of obligation, they lie and promise to call. “See you later,” Emily says before she and Marcus board their flight.

Seven months later, Marcus and Emily head to Atlanta for their wedding weekend, a tense affair for Marcus, who has a strained relationship with Emily’s father, Harold (Robert Wisdom), and brother, Gabe (Andrew Bachelor). On the first night of the weekend, Ron and Kyla show up unannounced and uninvited. Hair-raising antics and stressful moments inducing secondhand embarrassment define the rest of the weekend as Marcus and Emily try to keep Ron and Kyla from ruining their wedding.

Vacation Friends benefits from strong performances by Howery and Cena. The pair’s onscreen relationship showcase the best qualities of buddy-comedy duos, with their divergent personalities causing a steady stream of comical clashes. Howery’s dynamic facial expressions — contorting his mouth at the news of the flood, raising his eyebrows when offered a margarita with a cocaine rim — add necessary depth to Marcus’ nervous energy and straitlaced personality. You find yourself understanding why he can’t relinquish control and cheering for him in the moments he lets loose.

I wish I could say the same about the women of the film, whose characters lack the same developmental heft. Considering how much of the story revolves around her and her family, Emily feels especially underwritten. With no backstory and a handful of clichéd zingers, she too easily fades into the background. And unlike Cena and Howery’s scenes, Orji and Hagner’s screen time lacks humor and realism. While these flaws don’t completely detract from the film, they do make it harder to fully buy in.

Full credits

Distributor: Hulu
Production companies: 20th Century Studios, Broken Road
Cast: John Cena, Lil Rel Howery, Yvonne Orji, Meredith Hagner, Robert Wisdom, Andrew Bachelor, Lynn Whitfield
Director: Clay Tarver
Screenwriters: Tom Mullen, Tim Mullen, Clay Tarver, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Producers: Todd Garner, Timothy M. Bourne
Executive producers: Steve Pink, Sean Robins
Director of photography: Tim Suhrstedt
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Costume designer: Salvador Perez
Editor: Evan Henke
Composer: Rolfe Kent
Casting directors: Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellera Hallman

Rated R, 1 hour 43 minutes