“Vacation,” which restarts the long-dormant franchise after nearly 20 years (not counting a Griswold-less direct-to-video spinoff), has something I never expected: potential. Just about everything you’d expect would be wrong with a throwback sequel in the year 2015 is, in fact, wrong with it: It’s winkingly self-conscious without being self-aware; substitutes gross-out gags for character-driven humor in a feeble attempt to seem “edgy”; and generally evinces no reason to exist beyond a movie studio’s lack of imagination. But there are flashes in it of a movie that could have been, if not great, at least something.
I haven’t watched the original “Vacation” recently enough for any fine-grained analysis — my suspicion is that it’s generally not very good — but in Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold, it nailed a certain subspecies of American father: white, middle-class, aspirational, and emotionally repressed. I saw echoes of my own father in his overambitious vacation schemes, his modestly tyrannical insistence on forced family happiness, his internal struggle between spousal devotion and a wandering eye. Ed Helms, playing the grown-up version of Clark’s son, Rusty, channels a moderately updated version of that archetype: He’s nice to a fault, working a thankless job as a budget airline pilot, coming home to a tolerant wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and two sons, one a bully, the other an awkward nerd, who pay him no mind. His spur-of-the-moment decision to drive his family half across the country to Walley World — wouldn’t Paris be a better idea? Debbie asks gamely — feels like an attempt to reboot his own paternal authority, an imaginative exercise in which he’s the alpha dog and his wife and kids obediently fall in line.
In practice, the trip further undermines his manhood. A decision to swing by his wife’s alma mater — this time without even asking her first — leads to the discovery that she was a collegiate party animal, and that she’s slept with ten times as many people as he has. When they visit Debbie’s sister (Leslie Mann), Clark watches impotently as Debbie flirts with her brother-in-law (Chris Hemsworth), who invades their bedroom clad only in a pair of tight briefs from which his enormous (prosthetic) penis perpetually threatens to escape. The first movie’s scary black people are replaced with scary rednecks and long-haul truck drivers, but the threat to Rusty’s suburban insularity is the same. Writer-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein mimic the first movie beat for beat, if not scene for scene, although the way they handle Rusty’s highway flirtation with a hot blonde in a sports car says way too much about the way American movies currently deal with sex, none of it good.
“Vacation” is a lazy, convictionless extension of a franchise that feels hopelessly dated, but Helms’ performance — and Applegate’s, on the rare occasion she gets to do anything of interest — gives you a window into the opportunities “Vacation” misses. It crystallized for me during the scene late in the film where Rusty and family meet up with Clark and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo, lacking a single significant line). The scene is such a nothing, impossible even to spoil, but think what it could have been, a chance for fathers of different generations to realize how they’ve spent their lives chasing an ideal they never even believed in — one they got, in substantial part, from the movies. It could have explored how the challenges facing parents have shifted from trying not to get the kids to eat the family truckster to keeping them off their iPads for five minutes, and how our definitions of what brings a family together have shifted, and how they haven’t. With some deft writing (of the kind, admittedly, “Vacation” never once shows any evidence of), that realization could have been achieved briskly and without lapsing into sentiment — it could, in fact, have been hilarious. Instead, we get Chevy Chase doing strained schtick that makes you wish you were watching “Community” instead
I suppose it’s a point in “Vacation’s” favor that it’s (just) good enough to suggest a better movie, one in which Helms and Applegate don’t end up covered in human excrement. But that depends on where you rank a worthless movie against one that has potential, and squanders it.
Reviews of “Vacation”
Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press
There’s beauty and humor, probably, in the ways families travel now, but “Vacation,” a spiritual and literal continuation of what John Hughes and Harold Ramis imagined three decades ago, isn’t interested in the now of it all. Rather, “Vacation” is an over-the-top, often hilarious homage to the original from the earnest and talented writing-directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. It’s also completely divorced from the reality that made the first so perfect.
David Ehrlich, Time Out New York
Written and directed by Horrible Bosses scribes John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, “Vacation” evinces an overt appreciation for the original—the film treats Clark’s Wagon Queen Family Truckster with hilarious reverence, like it’s a valuable part of film history—but precious little understanding of why it worked. Whereas John Hughes’s script touched a nerve because he created a family that seemed like a funhouse mirror of your own, this version is just a witless series of gross-out gags, with Rusty’s wife projectile vomiting one minute and swimming in raw sewage the next.
Kevin Jagernauth, Playlist
It doesn’t take long to establish that “Vacation” prefers to lean toward crude rather than crafted, and it’s hard to understand why Goldstein and Daley choose this road, other than it’s probably an easier way to earn cheap laughs. However, the filmmakers often don’t know when is enough, hoping that the more they pour it on, the funnier it’ll be.
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
The filmmakers place a strange emphasis on jokes involving the sexual molestation of teens and pre-teens. Certainly the ’83 “Vacation” pushed its luck here and there; if I hear one more person reference cousin Eddie’s daughter’s French-kiss line, it’ll be the 490th person this week. Witlessly, the new movie never stops pushing. Midair turbulence causes Helms’ pilot to stumble and fall, head first, into the crotch of a very young passenger. (The staging is beyond clumsy, and a step or two north of icky.) In another scene Rusty appears to be seducing his own son. Later, a trucker explains that the teddy bear stuck to his front grille is there to entice his victims. If any of this was surprising or cleverly timed, you’d laugh and then cringe. In “Vacation” you cringe first and ask questions later.
Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com
“Vacation” is, minute to minute, one of the most repellent, mean-spirited gross-out comedies it’s ever been my squirmy displeasure to sit through. This relentless farce of humiliation asks us to guffaw at a gruesome highway death, another presumed death by blunt-force trauma and/or drowning and/or (spoiler alert for those who sit through end credits?) bear attack. It locates humor in the sight of a young boy using a used hypodermic needle as a dart launched against his brother, and, at the very end, that brother unearthing his ostensible virility by beating on a snooty teenage girl.
Matt Prigge, Metro
The new reboot/semi-sequel, simply called “Vacation,” keeps the dumb jokes, chucks the rest. It takes the sarcastic, lovingly disrespectful, “21 Jump Street”-movie route — an odd thing to do for a franchise that was already a comedy. It’s self-aware, but not self-aware in the ways that count. If anything it’s more reactionary, which is impressive given the original was written by noted Hollywood conservative John Hughes. It doesn’t have much to say about how we live today, or the state of the by this point fading middle class. It does, however, have plenty to say about the state of movies in 2015. It makes the dire “Vegas Vacation” look like the original “Vacation.”
Jordan Hoffman, Guardian
The saddest thing is that this movie isn’t funny or transgressive enough to cause any tumult. Our nostalgia-industrial complex has merely swallowed up another intellectual property. Not that the “Vacation” series hadn’t already been mined for sequels, but it was perhaps best to let it rest. The original wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it did have a smidge of cultural resonance. Here was Chevy Chase, representative of that first season from Saturday Night Live, one of the final bursts of legitimate late 1960s rebellion. To see Chase segue into a grinning stooge of a father was, without overthinking it, commentary on Reaganism and yuppiedom. Helms, a funny performer, is just the face of a mining expedition for easy yuks out of a recognized title. What that says about our regurgitative culture is rather depressing.
Scott Foundas, Variety
The Griswolds have endured a lot over the decades, though this “Vacation” is the first one where they’ve been road-raged by a pedophile truck driver and nearly taken over the falls by a suicidal river-rafting guide (Charlie Day). That generally depressive air is only compounded by watching so many gifted performers struggling to prop up such flaccid material (including no shortage of dick jokes, gay jokes, gender-identity jokes). The always game Christina Applegate, such a spry comedienne in the “Anchorman” pics, is utterly wasted here as Rusty’s long-suffering missus, on hand mainly to projectile-vomit her way through a round of drunken sorority games during a visit to her Memphis alma mater. Still, she escapes with slightly more dignity than does Chris Hemsworth, on hand mainly to prance about in his skivvies as the vain Texas TV weatherman who’s married Audrey (a similarly underused Leslie Mann). Least of all are Chase (looking frightfully bloated) and D’Angelo (looking radiant at 63), whose 11th-hour appearances seem tacked on as a post-production afterthought.
Josh Dickey, Mashable
Faithfully and craftily written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, “Vacation” is several exits past funny enough to be worth your time and dollars. But I am sad to report that Ed Helms is no Chevy Chase. Chase as Clark Griswold was the ultimate buffoon dad, but he always had backbone; his optimism came from a place of defiant resolve, the fighting spirit of a food-additive developer who overcame chiseled good looks and a tomcat heart to become a devoted family man. Helms is on the milquetoast side of that equation, a compliant wuss who overcame a weak jaw and squeaky voice to become an airline pilot and start a family with a former wild sorority girl (Christina Applegate).
Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter
The filmmakers’ unsubtle style is responsible for killing many of the jokes. But they do succeed with several of the performers. It’s a little hard to accept that Anthony Michael Hall (who played Rusty as a child in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”) would grow into Ed Helms, but Helms actually channels Chase pretty effectively. He plays the same kind of bumbling doofus, and his underlying sweetness always comes through. Applegate is appealing, even if her role is sketchy.The directors hired two talented actors to play the kids Skyler Gisondo creates an endearing character as the older son, a literary nerd who dreams of taking a road trip out of Jack Kerouac, while Steele Stebbins is the foul-mouthed, bullying younger brother, funny even when his insults fall flat. The offbeat dynamic between the two is one of the movie’s better inventions.
Eric Goldman, IGN
Vacation is very funny. There is clear reverence for the original movie here from writer/directors John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein (and an acknowledgement that Rusty is idealizing past events, given how bad things went on that first trip to Walley World), while the movie also has its own vibe. While there are a couple of direct callbacks — such as a beautiful, flirtatious girl in a convertible — most of the film’s setpieces and locations are different, so that the movie doesn’t feel like a beat for beat recreation of what Hughes and Ramis nailed in 1983.