1. The original 1983 National Lampoon’s Vacation is a classic because deep down, it’s essentially a sweet movie. The screenplay was written by John Hughes—based off the short story “Vacation ’58,” which he wrote about a family trip to Disneyworld, and which ultimately got him on the staff of National Lampoon—and the result has his sense of goofy wonder and, despite it all, genuine affection for the Griswold family. For everything that goes wrong on that trip, the movie (and director Harold Ramis in particular) have a legitimate love for Clark Griswold’s doomed attempts to bond with his family: The movie’s heart is always in the right place, a fractured fable about how our attempts to manufacture the Perfect Family Dynamic tend to disguise what’s truly great about our stupid, dysfunctional families in the first place. It’s also anchored by some terrific gags that might be even more off-color today than they were back then. Imagine how “problematic” Clark forgetting to untie that dog from the bumper would be in 2015. (“Poor little guy. Probably kept up with you for a mile or so.”) Not to mention the dead Grandma on the roof. “You want me to strap her to the hood? She’ll be fine. It’s not as if it’s going to rain or something.” I’m sorry, but that’s funny.
2. Vacation—the new remake, or sequel, or whatever—takes the wrong lesson from the original. As funny as those bits with the dog and the Grandma are, they work because the rest of the movie is coated in that cracked sweetness and ultimate respect for just how insane Clark will go to make his family happy. This new film is coated in something far more foul. Rather than putting a spin on the family comedy, this thing just doubles down on the crude, attempting to out-disgust the original and ... well, that’s it. Any sweetness is tossed out the window, any goodwill toward this family is gone. This is just about topping the scenes with the dog and the Grandma with every possible gross-out gag the filmmakers can muster. You name it, it’s in here, from a hot-springs bath in raw sewage to a hotel bathroom with the dried blood of a recent suicide on the wall to a pedophile trucker to a seemingly unceasing number of jokes about erections. (This movie is really into erections. I counted six, three short of a starting MLB lineup of erections.) This is less a Vacation sequel than a Hangover sequel. And if you’ve even seen any of the Hangover sequels, you know that is bad news indeed.
3. The premise this time is that Rusty Griswold, one of the kids from the first Vacation (played by a young Anthony Michael Hall in the original, different actors in every sequel, and now Ed Helms as a grownup) has become a boring, rote husband who decides to recreate his father’s infamous trip to Wally World with his own wife (Christina Applegate, as usual, the funniest person in a movie that doesn’t seem to realize she’s the funniest person in the movie) and his two sons. Of course, everything goes wrong like it did last time, only more grotesquely so. The movie follows a monotonous structure, with just one disaster set piece after another, to the point that the trip feels less like a quixotic journey and more like a purposeful death wish. None of this leads to anywhere all that interesting: Even Rusty’s decision to go to Wally World—the place where his father lost his mind, took a security guard hostage, and committed several felonies—goes curiously unexplored. The movie just works a series of fiascos that don’t so much top each other as much as just sort of flop around next to each other. It’s the sort of movie that’s so proud of how far it’s willing to go for a joke that it forgets to make any of the jokes funny.
4. Ed Helms is a perfectly fine Rusty, I guess, but he lacks the fundamental madness that Chevy Chase brought to the role; as obnoxious and irritating as Chase can be, I’d argue he was never better than he was in the Vacation movies. Helms is less an obsessive family man than he is a total boob: He’s so neutered and ineffectual that the surprise is less that he is a boring father and more that he ever found someone to have sex with him in the first place. The two brothers—the younger one is always trying to kill the older one—have a few funny moments, but their one joke gets tiresome fast. But the real sign that this Vacation doesn’t quite know what it’s doing is how it wastes all its supporting talent, a list of comedic luminaries like Charlie Day, Ron Livingston, Keegan Michael-Key, Nick Kroll, Tim Heidecker, Kaitlin Olson, Michael Pena, and Leslie Mann, with nary a laugh among them. (Day is particularly unfunny here, moreso for how hard he’s trying.) Chris Hemsworth does his best to stretch his comedic bonafides as a hunky Texas weatherman prone to showing off his erection in his boxer-briefs, but he’s still a Marvel superhero doing his best to find laughs where there are none to be had. You don’t so much blame him as pity him. Oh, and Chase himself shows up and stops the movie dead in its tracks: There’s a moment where he appears to be trying some sort of physical comedy bit that isn’t so much “funny” as “like trying to watch your great-grandmother trying to do a chin-up.” It’s legitimately uncomfortable to watch him. If only Randy Quaid could have gotten out of Canada to pop in.
5. I want to admire Vacation for his willingness to go anywhere for a joke, and the movie certainly begs the viewer to give it that benefit of the doubt. (Every scene seems to have invisible Aren’t we outrageous? subtitles at the bottom of the screen.) And unlike a lot of other reboots and sequels, the film is not just a blatant cynical cash-grab, or at least it is not only that; writer/directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who wrote Horrible Bosses, certainly give it their all, throwing every half-formed joke they can think of at the screen. But the whole thing is mean-spirited and ugly and awfully far from what even some of the lesser films in this franchise managed to deliver. It didn’t so make me angry so much as it made me sad. I bet that ends up being one of the nicer things anyone says about Vacation; I encourage them to try it out on the poster.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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