The new Vacation means well but tries too hard, and is ultimately just another pale imitation reboot.
Vacation (2015) catches us up with Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms), no longer the boy traveling with his wacky family, but rather a man with a wacky family of his own. Feeling the dregs of his job as a pilot for a lower-end airline, and the rut routine of his family and married life, Rusty makes a “bold” move to spice things up: Instead of dragging his family to the same dilapidated woodland cabin, he’s taking them to Walley World in California, just as his father did so many years ago (in the original Vacation).
However, as the Griswolds (2.0) take to the road, things go disastrously (and hilariously) wrong from the get-go. From a rental car mishap, to some bad touring stops, to the horrors of visiting extended family, the Griswolds try to tighten the familial bonds of love and appreciation, even though those bonds are being tested like never before. After all, isn’t that what family vacation is all about?
Taking the 1983 Vacation and thrusting it into the modern age of high-octane raunch comedy, Vacation (2015) is pretty much the result most would expect: Still filled with laughs, but ultimately a cheaper and more hollow echo of the original film, despite some inspired comedic performances from the cast. It’s not hard to pinpoint where the difference in quality between the two Vacation films comes from; although they have a solid comedy hit under their collective belt (Horrible Bosses), writer / directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein just don’t compare to the team of Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Caddy Shack) and John Hughes (Ferris Buller, Breakfast Club) working in their heyday.
Hughes brought actual family themed substance to Vacation (1983) that combined perfectly with Ramis and star Chevy Chase’s comedic sensibilities. Comparatively, Daley and Goldstein attempt to stretch a Frankenstein stitch of gags over the standard framework of a ‘conflicted family bonds together’ story trope. To be clear: there are a lot of funny gags and moments in this new Vacation (even a few that haven’t yet been spoiled by trailers!), but the non-stop barrage of foul-language gags, sight gags, gross-out gags and then back to foul-language gags comes off as desperate, rather than inspired.
The film plays as if every conceivable joke was thrown at the wall, and the ones that seemed to stick best were swept up and glued together as the plotline. That episodic format can work in some cases (Harold & Kumar, Anchorman), and even seems well-suited to Vacation’s “stops along the road trip” structure; but again, Daley and Goldstein keep things so amped up the entire time along the journey that it becomes impossible to appreciate the biggest gag setups and set pieces, as the big payoffs get lost in the rush of little “filler” gags in between each big set piece. In other words: excess makes it hard to appreciate the finer qualities of the humor – the comedy equivalent of watching a Michael Bay action flick.
To their credit, Daley and Goldstein do stage the film with some crisp and vibrant visuals, shot by 22 Jump Street and We’re the Millers cinematographer Barry Peterson. Daley and Goldstein also prove to have a good versatility when pulling off different setups and jokes – from witty and well-timed dialogue in slower moments, to more over-the-top physical comedy, and the mimicry of action or adventure movies. Of course, they also have a lot of “just for the sake of it,” comedy crammed in, most notably into the psychotic and foul-mouthed young Kevin Griswold (Steele Stebbins), who seems arbitrarily obligated say or do the ‘outrageous child’ bit every few seconds that pass without a joke.
As for the rest of the cast: Ed Helms does a fine job bringing his “aw shucks!” nice guy persona to the forefront of the ensemble. Helms forgoes the sort of winking approach that Chevy Chase had, playing things rigidly straight, often to great effect. What would’ve been complete failures of jokes often get buoyed by Helms’ ability to deliver (like that meta monologue about this being a reboot), making him a well-placed asset. Conversely, the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with Christina Applegate, who is woefully underutilized in a dated and clichéd “nagging unhappy wife” role. When she does get to cut loose, Applegate reminds why she’s been in the comedy game as far back as her Married with Children days… but those moments come in limited supply. Beyond the two leads, Skyler Gisondo (Psych) is better measured than Stebbins, playing the elder Griswold son, James, with a funny touch of weird awkward guy timing that creates some off-beat but welcome laughs.
With such legacy and weight behind it, Vacation also pulls in a deep bench of famous co-stars and cameos. Leslie Mann (like Applegate) gets very little to sink her comedic chops into, as grown-up Audrey Griswold; she’s mostly just a backboard for Thor star Chris Hemsworth to bounce jokes off-of, playing Audrey’s hunky Texan husband, Stone Crandall. There is the obligatory lineup of cameo appearances – and this film manages to snag a particularly smart group of talent – and for the most part they hit more than miss. Chevy Chase of course reappears, and still manages to have the goods that made the original an enduring piece of comedy cinema.
The new Vacation means well but tries too hard, and is ultimately just another pale imitation reboot. Unlike the original, memory of this film will likely not endure beyond one or two gags – or the man-crushing image of Hemsworth’s “six-pack” – but in this dry spell of comedy flicks, Vacation is good for a Sunday matinée laugh. Invest smartly.
Vacation is now in theaters. It is 99 minutes long and is Rated R for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity.