It has been an interesting year for John Cena. The wrestler turned actor seems to be everywhere in Hollywood, from blockbuster films to this year’s Summerslam, to even Honda commercials! Still not hitting his groove yet as a mainstream star, the machine behind him feels like it’s throwing darts and seeing what sticks – his performance in The Suicide Squad was well-lauded, while reaction to his turn as Jakob Toretto in F9 was lukewarm. Here, in Hulu’s latest streaming comedy, Vacation Friends, he appears to find a lane befitting his outsized personality.
However, the movie is just as much a vehicle for Lil Rel Howery (Get Out, Free Guy), Yvonne Orji (Insecure), and Meredith Hagner (Search Party). There’s so much crossover appeal here, all we’re missing is a tie-in to Fortnite, the milk crate challenge, and a cry to free Britney Spears.
The film follows Marcus Parker (Howery) and his soon-to-be fiance Emily Conway (Orji), as the couple goes on a romantic getaway. However, one disaster after another leaves them with no room to stay. Until they meet Ron (Cena) and Kyla (Hagner), two would-be free spirits who offer part of their suite up to the down on their luck couple. Marcus and Emily are somewhat on edge, and clearly differ on the life choices of their hosts – Ron and Kyla are not only intense drug users but have allegedly spent all of the disposable income they have on this resort vacation. They justify it by saying they’ll just earn more money, and what’s the use of it if it’s in a bank? Given the increasingly unpromising forecast of world events, more people may be inclined to adopt Ron/Emily’s lifestyle, putting today ahead of tomorrow.
While Marcus and Emily enjoy their time with the batshit insane couple, the former is more than happy to get back to normal life and plan their dream wedding. But Ron and Kyla have other plans, as they believe they’ve discovered lifelong friends. Ron, in particular, is still recovering from the loss of an old friend, as his friendship with Marcus reawakens his spirit. But when Ron and Kyla attempt to crash the wedding, the unspoken tension reaches a breaking point as Marcus and Emily scheme to get these hangers-on out of their lives for good.
The film succeeds almost entirely in the chemistry of its cast. Chief among the standouts is John Cena himself; his roles thus far have been rocky, but Ron is his best performance yet. You get the sense that Cena is someone who wants to be liked, and Ron is the most likable here. Yes, he’s a bit of a dope, has a disregard for boundaries, and you may be fearing for your life every second he’s around. But he’s kind, supportive, and will ensure you’re going to make memories no matter what. Given the state of social interactions, we may need a few more Rons to liven the party up.
There’s a sweetness at the heart of the story, another in a long list of screwball comedies where disparate personalities learn that they actually need one another. In the case of Marcus and Emily, their conservative and stuck-up attitudes have to be taken down a peg to make room for growth. Marcus doesn’t even invite his employees to the wedding, for fear they won’t fit in with Emily’s snooty family. The movie nails down the dilemma of balancing friendship with family, and why traditions become obstacles when it comes to accepting those who go against the norm.
Howery and Cena, perhaps unsurprisingly, are an intriguing yin and yang. Unlike the duo of The Rock & Kevin Hart, this pairing is less about trying to one-up one another and more about complimenting each other’s sensibilities. Marcus’ awkward handling of social interactions juxtaposed with Ron’s unassailable confidence is the source of both the humor and the conflict. While Hagner’s ditzy sweetness motivates the camaraderie and good vibes the movie is trying to give off. These personalities at times are so mismatched, that Marcus’ inexperience and blindspots end up being a learning experience for him, like a hilarious bit of editing involving the foursome’s boat trip at sea, set to Seals & Crofts’ Summer Breeze. If there’s one aspect of the quartet that feels off, I don’t quite believe Emily would want to befriend these two goofballs, and her connection with Kyla isn’t as strong as the bromance at the center of the story.
Nonetheless, Vacation Friends is an entertaining farce, despite not quite being one of the funniest films we’ve had in a few years. There’s a deficiency of sight gags and “you’ll only catch it on the 2nd viewing” one-liners that are the prerequisite of upper echelon comedy. Vacation Friends is more dialogue-driven, succeeding on the mood created by the four leads. But as a showcase for its likable cast, it represents a very digestible distraction, even in a world bombarded with “content.” These are friends worth spending time with; I just hope Ron and Kyla aren’t the types of people whose carefree lifestyle makes them too inconsiderate to wear a mask.