New releases: ‘Couples Retreat’ and ‘A Serious Man’

Posted Feb. 05, 2010, at 5:30 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:56 a.m.

“Couples Retreat” DVD, Blu-ray — Peter Billingsley’s “Couples Retreat” is a comedy about avoiding divorce. In its sights are Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell), two miserable, boring shills with energy to spare, but they can’t conceive a child. And so, you know, they kind of hate each other for it. Isn’t that funny? It gets better. Fueling the laughs are the six people duped by Jason and Cynthia to join them on an island getaway. The idea they present to their friends — two couples nearing divorce, one couple whose male counterpart recently divorced and is dating a slinky young woman years younger than himself (she could be his child) — is the opportunity to relax in a tropical clime. Trouble is, when they get there, all find out what’s going down; they’ve been tricked into couples counseling. And really, what’s funnier than couples counseling? In the right hands — say, Woody Allen’s — the answer would have been “plenty.” But here, it’s a resounding “zip!” Billingsley, who played Ralphie in 1983’s “A Christmas Story,” should have picked up that old BB gun of his and blown the hell out of the script before he ever signed on to make a movie out of it. About that script. It hails from Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau and Dana Fox. It’s riddled with cliches, so what Billingsley mines from it is just what you’d expect — a movie cramped with them. That’s a disappointment, not only because of the film’s sorry lack of laughs, but also because it squanders the potential of its premise, not to mention the talent driving it. Beyond Bateman, who has been on a roll lately, the movie stars Vaughn as Dave; Kristin Davis as Lucy; Jean Reno as the ditzy putz behind this tropical throwdown; Favreau as Joey; Malin Akerman as Ronnie; and Faizon Love as Shane. Given the right roles, all of these actors have proved they can sustain laughter. But here? When I saw it last October, the audience at my screening might as well have been extras in a silent movie. Rated PG-13. Grade: D+


“A Serious Man” DVD, Blu-ray — From Joel and Ethan Coen, a dark comedy that questions faith, fate, responsibility and culture. Michael Stuhlbarg is Larry Gopnik, a university professor who isn’t exactly enjoying the best time of his life. Ruining it are the threat of divorce, his brother’s troubles with the law, and the idea that Larry might not receive tenure because of a crush of anonymous letters threatening to undo him. Why all the bad luck? To Larry, it’s a mystery; he has led a good life. He’s a decent person. He’s a good man. Why should he be singled out for such treatment? For the Coens, it comes down to this: Why should any decent person deserve such treatment? In this dense, enjoy-able film that weaves into its plot elements of Judaism and Jewish culture, the point is that life is random even though many would prefer that there’s a point to our existence. Is there? Leave it to the Coens to leave it all up in the air. Rated R. Grade: B+

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“Surrogates” DVD, Blu-ray — A sci-fi action movie that, to quote the film, imagines “a world where you can be anyone, go anywhere, do anything. Robotic human surrogates combine the ability of a machine with the grace and beauty of the human body. With most human beings living their lives through their surrogate selves, our world has become a safer place.” Well, not quite. What director Jonathan Mostow created smacks of the popular online game “Second Life,” only without the violent twists taken here. Just as in the game, “Surrogates” features normal-looking people who live fantastic lives in beautiful-looking bodies. For instance, if you wish, you can look like yourself, only a whole lot better; that is, of course, if you can overlook your surrogate’s soul-less eyes and the odd way it walks. As for that last part, what if you’re physically disabled and can’t walk? No problem. Just sit in your “stim chair,” hook yourself up to a surrogate who can walk and exist through it. Initially, the whole enterprise takes off. Crime, racism, drug addiction and disease plummet. People enjoy pseudo-sexy times while sitting unbathed and uncombed in the comfort of their own homes. But when two people wind up dead when their surro-gates are murdered — an unthinkable event — Bruce Willis steps in to investigate as FBI agent Greer. Greer also is a surrogate, one with poreless skin and a full head of blond hair that suggests Barbie’s pal Ken, was snatched bald. Soon, it’s the real Willis we’re looking at, and let’s just say this Greer is a bit more grizzled, and also critical to all that follows. While he might no longer be physically attractive to his robot wife (Rosamund Pike), who refuses to ditch her pretty surrogate to live life as her real self, Greer has more pressing situations to deal with. You know, such as saving the world and mankind from itself. Helping him along the way is The Prophet (Ving Rhames, replete with dreadlocks), who is the head of The Dreaders, a society of humans who refuse to become surrogates and who, flipping “District 9” on its head, are quarantined as a result. Also key is James Crom-well as the man who initially envisioned and created the surrogate lifestyle, as well as Radha Mitchell as Greer’s fellow detective. Throughout “Surrogates,” the references are broad and obvious, stretching from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to “Westworld,” “Blade Runner” and “I, Robot.” The good news is that these references don’t distract as much as they inform. We are, after all, increasingly becoming a society hooked to our computers, and it’s this fact that gives “Surrogates” its hum of plausibility. Rated PG-13. Grade: B-


“Dallas: Twelfth Season” — This proves once again that where there’s oil, there’s drama. Here, the usual doses of death, destruction, barbed tongues, backbiting, lawsuits, giant hair and swift kicks to the groin are the mainstay, but the focus mostly is on J.R. (Larry Hagman), who flirted with the wrong woman, wound up in jail, then ran for it while a movie about his sorry life was being made on the sly. Barbara Bel Geddes returns as Miss Ellie, and the show is better for it. Setting herself on autopilot, she grimaces through the fireworks, the alcoholic benders and all those appealing little adulteries and remains the force that keeps this show together. Grade: B


“Mary Tyler Moore Show: Sixth Season” — Mary on a tear. The sixth season of Moore’s iconic show finds Mary Richards returning with her backbone a bit firmer than in the previous five seasons. She’s more combative here, more alive, with her added pluck giving the season added zip. Helping to that end are the number-than-numb Georgette (Georgie Engel), the meddling Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) and the evil Sue Ann (Betty White). As with the best comedic series, what the show does so well is to weave moments of genuine drama within the laughs. Some shows in this excellent season stand among the best of the series, “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” “Mary Richards Falls in Love” and the terrific “Menage-a-Lou.” Grade: B+ is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle as well as on He may be reached at

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