With the amount of remakes, reboots, and sequels that flood the movie marketplace, you have to ask yourself this core question. What do you want in a remake? This wave of rehashed and resurrected ideas is endless, so if you’re not boycotting and avoiding them, you need to set your expectation level. Do you want an homage or a complete revision? Do you want a modern update or a straight one? How you answer that question speaks to both your openness and tolerance level and that bar is raised and lowered depending on the movie remake in question.
To this writer, the success of a remake, reboot, or sequel is contingent upon matching the tone of the original work to the best of its ability. If a film gets that tone right, it can be a drastic revision full of changes and updates and still feel respectfully aware and in tune with the previous well-remembered greatness the new film is trying to emulate. That’s the taste test that should be put on “Vacation,” the new long distance sequel/update of Harold Ramis’s 1983 National Lampoon comedy classic starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as Clark and Ellen Griswold. It opens in theaters across the Chicagoland area today, Wednesday, July 29. Much has changed in 32 years, but as soon as Lindsey Buckingham’s catchy anthem “Holiday Road” opens the credits, the new “Vacation” gets its tone as a road trip/cringe comedy right to match the appropriate low bar of expectation when compared and challenged to the original. The film was never going to be very smart, but it delivers the belly laughs you needed and were looking for.
“The Hangover” trilogy star Ed Helms steps in to play the grown-up Russ Griswold, son of Clark and Ellen. He’s a family-focused economy airline pilot that still calls Chicago home, married to his sweetheart Debbie (Christina Applegate of “Anchorman”) and father of two boys, the awkward soulful teen James (Skyler Gisondo of “Night at the Museum: The Secret of the Tomb”) and the bullying riot pre-teen Kevin (hilarious newcomer Steele Stebbins). Summer is here and Russ is finally realizing that the same lakeside cabin family vacation he annually drags Debbie and the kids to is getting stale. He gets it in his head to be bold and relive the great road trip to Walley World in California that he experienced as a kid.
The Griswolds set off in a terrible rental car and embark on their journey. Naturally, the film puts the family through the comedic wringer of the prerequisite destinations, diversions, misadventures, successes, and failures that are destined to happen on a Griswold family vacation. Helms is a natural choice to accept that male Griswold mantle of low confidence, misguided hubris, and magnetic bad luck. That’s his act and it works. Applegate too is in her wheelhouse as another variation of the buttoned-up former wild girl and reformed ditz from her resume. Neither choice was going to get the “inspired casting” label, but, again, that bar was never going to be that high. The inspired curveballs come from the celebrity cameos in funny encounters, including Charlie Day and the returning Chase and D’Angelo. Top-billed among the new additions is Aussie hunk Chris “Thor” Hemsworth doing his best over-the-top Cousin Eddy substitute as the aloof Texas redneck weatherman husband of Russ’s sister Audrey, played by Leslie Mann. His bit is intentionally laid on way too thick, but Chris’s go-for-broke investment will have the audience in stitches.
Since 1983, cringe-inducing gross-out humor has become the modern comedy menu over the sarcastic subtlety veiled behind the put-upon cluelessness of a deviant master like Chevy Chase. That new style either works for you or it doesn’t when it comes to “Vacation.” With that in mind, the writing and directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (“Horrible Bosses”) do enough to package an equal amount of simple, sly comedy nods and moments to match the larger gags and set pieces. That blend befits the necessary tone to match the National Lampoon zaniness of the original, with a dash of self-awareness. Right when you think this new film is reaching for the low-hanging fruit to copy a joke from the 1983 original (like the “Girl in the Red Ferrari”), they twist it into something else, turn it on its ear, or change the perspective without sacrificing the theme. “Vacation” is an easy, dumb 99 minutes that won’t hurt you a bit and spark your nostalgia in the right way.
Lesson #1: Parenting is filled with teachable moments— Whether it ends in wisdom or embarrassment being imparted, parents need to identify and take advantage of teachable moments. Life is filled with them. Look for them and seek them out. Capitalize on those chances. If you’re unprepared and screw them up, at least you tried and didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. Even if your failures outnumber your victories, at least you invested the effort to try.
Lesson #2: The destination is meant to be better than the journey— When it comes to life in general, this lesson is usually stated the other way around, but that is not the case with family road trip vacations. Even though a fraction of what happens in “Vacation” is ever likely to match the hiccups and speed bumps of real-life cross-country trips, this level of whole full-family undertaking still stinks. Big vacations are comprised of long stretches of tested patience and brain-numbing “are we there yet” waiting backed by small flourishes of memories, sights, and pictures that culminate in the main destination you’ve been waiting and hoping would arrive. Ask any family that has gone to Disney World. They don’t remember the drive. They remember the time the park. You have squeeze what you can out of the journey to make it tolerable. You wish the long shared time was as good as Disney World, but it’s not going to be.
Lesson #3: The growth and betterment found in making mistakes— This has always been the core theme when it came to the Griswold men in this comedy series. Russ, like Clark before him, is a well-meaning straight arrow who is a lovable loser. The Griswold men are fallible, blissfully optimistic, and try too hard to please others. When they overshoot their mark gloriously and big mistakes happen, they are slow to learn, but easy to forgive because their eager effort to win you over is unmistakably in the right place. Like his father before him, it takes Russ a while to figure out his errors, learn from mistakes, and grow to be a better father and husband. When that lightbulb comes on and karma shines down on him rather than bite him in the ass, he wins bigger than other guys with less hope, dedication, and enterprise.