In 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, there’s a great bit that finds Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) trying to match the flirtatious behavior of a beautiful, mysterious woman (Christie Brinkley) he keeps running into. She dances next to her car, and Clark tries to match her seductive behavior by playing around with the sandwich in his hand. As soon as he bites in, his wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) shouts out in disgust that the dog had urinated on the picnic basket. Clark breaks out of sexy mode and spits up the sandwich. The older aunt traveling with them takes a beat, and then decides to eat her sandwich anyway. It’s unexpected, quick, funny, and we’re moving on.
In 2015’s Vacation, Rusty Griswold and his family swim in a pool of shit for about three minutes.
I thought we used up our “literally eating shit in a comedy” quota back in 2003’s American Wedding, but I stand corrected. Whether or not this is the state of comedy today is another issue. The fact is that this scene in and of itself represents the humor found in the new Vacation, a movie that adheres to the “More, More, More” principle over anything else. They certainly do crank it up, but at what cost?
It’s vacation time again for good-intentioned, do-gooder Rusty (played by the likable-as-always Ed Helms) and his family. After discovering his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), has been unhappy during their annual summer cabin vacays, Rusty is struck by inspiration: a trip to Walley World. Why he would want to recreate a nightmare trip from 30 years ago is literally brought up by his sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann). She can’t stop laughing about his thought process. From an audience standpoint, the question is more about why would the filmmakers want to recreate what many people consider to be a comedy classic – I’m sorry. “Reboot” or “rejigger” or whatever. The new Vacation doesn’t know what it is anymore than I do.
Despite Rusty’s declaration that the “new vacation will stand on its own,” the film is too afraid to go down the road of either a straight sequel or full-on remake. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this summer’s seen two other franchise entries produce similar cases of indecision: the box-office success Jurassic World and the box office disaster Terminator: Genysis. All three of these movies are dependent on the past despite protestations to the contrary. This is what does in Vacation, despite the best efforts of its husband-wife duo (Helms and the underrated Applegate) and a handful of memorable cameos.
A major issue that plagues the film are Rusty and Debbie’s two children, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins, real name). Kudos to Daley and Goldstein for attempting to give more character to roles that are basically the new lil’ Rusty and lil’ Audrey of the franchise, but they went too far and created stock caricatures of kids from movies gone by. The older one is an outcast nerd while the little brother is an obnoxious, foul-mouthed bully. Unfortunately for the character of Kevin, he’s no Ronnie from Role Models. The resignation of Rusty and Audrey in the original Vacation and Christmas Vacation were humorous; they were never the cause of any issues and had to roll with the punches of their father’s ineptitude. In this film, the whole family’s inept.
If you read this and think it’s unfair to compare it to earlier Vacation entries, the film invites us to do so throughout. There is a totally pointless throwaway line about Cousin Eddie, Rusty mentions a father-son talk he and his Dad once had, there is a visit to Clark and Ellen’s, there’s that destination, “Holiday Road” is played a number of times, and the Chariots of Fire score gets a featured slot in the climax. The one person who escapes the ghost of their spiritual predecessor is Applegate’s Deb, who gets a lot more to do than D’Angelo’s Ellen ever did. There is some really great physical comedy from Applegate that keeps the film somewhat afloat early on.
Vacation’s other saving graces are found in Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day. Hemsworth plays Audrey’s husband: an impossibly attractive, conservative weatherman. He flaunts his good looks and aw-shucks attitude in equal measure while finding time for a few bizarre “faucet” analogies (easily the cleverest bits from the movie). It’s a chance for cinema’s Thor to let loose, and it pays off. The same can be said for Day, whose small part as a raft instructor having a bad day finds the Always Sunny actor delivering another frenzied, funny performance.
Former National Lampoon editor-in-chief P.J. O’Rourke had some interesting comparisons to make about this Vacation and the original, praising the original’s “maniacal expression of the love-and-hate relationship between weird hip sensibilities and even weirder normal middle-class values.” He went on to say, “that kind of fun can’t be had in the 21st century, where there are no normal middle-class values, all the Clark Griswolds are alienated, sarcastic and cynical, and every suburban schlub is a font of nihilism’s dark, ironic genius.” First off, he had only seen the trailer. However, speaking as an alienated, sarcastic cynic (and someone who has seen the movie), I’m inclined to agree with him.
Ed Helms’ “Clark” (er, “Rusty”) no longer exists. The original Vacation isn’t timeless because we still see those characters in today’s society. It’s timeless because the jokes still land despite coming at us from a long-forgotten time of the then-ideal “nuclear family,” with one father desperate to keep the dream alive. In 2015’s Vacation, the dream has long-since died, so why try to resuscitate when others have tried and failed (RV, Johnson Family Vacation)? Despite a few laugh-out-loud moments from the supporting characters listed above (as well as a GPS voice gone haywire), the new Vacation isn’t a trip worth taking. If you thought I could have ended this review with any other sentence, I’m not sure what you were reading.