Devin Faraci, Birth.Movies.Death.
There’s your poster pull quote for Vacation, the resurrection of the series - formerly branded as “National Lampoon’s” - that stretched out over four films, a spin-off and very long Super Bowl ad. This time young Griswold son Rusty is all grown up and taking his own brood on a trip across the country to visit Walley World, the theme park that led to Chevy Chase’s meltdown in the original film. Along the way they have hijinks and mishaps and there’s buffoonery and comedic set pieces of varying success. And I laughed, less than I did at the original film and more than I did at European Vacation.
What the new Vacation is missing is the sense of suburban desperation that the first film had. The magic of National Lampoon’s Vacation comes from a clash of sensibilities - counterculture provocateur Harold Ramis directed a screenplay by the bard of the 80s middle class, John Hughes. The story was based on a Hughes family trip to Disneyland in the early 60s, and Ramis turned it into the comedic chronicle of one man’s despair as he tries to find a pre-Vietnam understanding of family and happiness, only to discover its commodified, corporatized manifestation was literally closed to him. It was Reagan’s Morning in America but Ramis saw all the long shadows cast by that dawn.
There’s no such central darkness in Vacation, although there’s plenty of space for it. The script - by co-directors Jonathan Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein - has a small bit in the early moments about gender fluidity and I thought, “This is it! The movie’s going to be about the next generation of Griswold wandering America trying to figure out how he fits into this changing social landscape!” But it isn’t - the gender fluidity is just there for a dick joke, and to establish that Rusty is happy to explain everything about sexuality to his kids.
Which is fine - the original National Lampoon’s Vacation isn’t exactly wearing its meaning on its sleeve. But at the same time the lack of a central theme leaves the new Vacation slightly adrift, serving mostly as a way to string together jokes and get to geographically diverse set pieces. The new film is slightly less than the sum of its parts, but that still adds up to a lot of laugh out loud moments and a couple of actually hilarious scenes.
Ed Helms is the fifth actor to play Rusty, making him the Pierce Brosnan of this series. He’s fine; Rusty isn’t just another version of Clark, although it’s easy to see how they’re related. Where Clark Griswold was a blustery idiot whose ineptitude was often hidden behind immense confidence, Rusty is much more of an ineffectual doofus; if Clark was searching for his childhood version of America, Rusty is searching for his dad’s childhood version of America.
Helms is charming enough, if not particularly exciting to watch. Chevy Chase was a star while Ed Helms feels like the guy who gives a really wonderful supporting performance. Thankfully he’s supported by an able cast who is given more to do than the previous family members in the series as well as by a string of actors doing little cameo bits (the best of which is Charlie Day as a suicidal white water rafting guide).
Christina Applegate doesn’t quite get to Anchorman levels but that’s only because she’s not given the room. In her best scenes as Debbie Griswold she’s excellent; a sequence where the family visits her old sorority house is especially great, and I loved that it allows a woman the opportunity to do the disgusting on-screen vomiting, often only the providence of male comics (thinkpiece: Amy Schumer vomits on-screen in Trainwreck as well. A trend?). I’ve always liked Applegate - she might have been the best part of Married With Children, a show that has aged like a banana on your counter - but she’s never quite gotten the opportunity to shine as well I as suspect she can. Sadly to say Vacation doesn’t change that.
The children this time are James and Kevin, and the names of the actors playing them are maybe funnier than most of the jokes in the movie: Steele Stebbins and Skyler Gisondo. Really! I liked the kids a lot; the basic premise is that the younger brother is more or less a sociopath who constantly torments the older, effete brother. There’s a nastiness to this central relationship - and the way it is resolved - that feels truly of a kind with 80s movies. It’s totally out of place in 2015 and I suspect a lot of people will find it irritating. I loved it. I liked the kids too, silly Hollywood names and all.
Chris Hemsworth shows up for a quick couple of scenes, and if he had been able to do anything even remotely approaching a Texas accent he would have stolen the whole damn movie. It’s honestly a terrible accent, so bad you wonder why they didn’t rewrite the character completely (since part of the role involves him walking around in his underwear I understand why they didn’t recast). Leslie Mann is criminally wasted as Audrey, Hemsworth’s wife and Rusty’s sister.
Old Clark and Ellen Griswold - Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo - show up at the end, although you may wish they hadn’t. Chase is done, and between this and his marble mouthed appearance in Hot Tub Time Machine 2 I wish he would quietly retire. Bringing back Clark seems like a good idea, but it really hurts the film.
The entire ending hurts the film; the movie reaches a climax in the desert and then has to limp to a finale, stopping for a couple of reasonable laughs along the way. There’s no trajectory to the trip, and this version of the movie is way too invested in making the Griswolds happy - although to be fair the original had no clue how to properly end either, and at least this one has a better structure to its finale.
I think that’s part of the problem with the movie - which, like I said, is funny enough to go see. It’s a raunchy comedy in the vein of Judd Apatow, meaning it has perhaps a little more heart than it needs. I honestly don’t give a shit about Rusty and Debbie’s struggling marriage, so when that story resolves itself without a great punchline I couldn’t understand what the point was. The original National Lampoon’s Vacation - and the other good sequel, Christmas Vacation - were almost heartless, driven by Chevy Chase’s snarky, too-cool vibe. You just can’t have much heart in any Chevy Chase production. Ed Helms, put upon modern man, has way too much heart to go around. This Vacation needed a little bit of Harold Ramis’ cynicism to go with the raunch.