Franchise reboots are nothing new, but rarer are relaunches of classic comedies, perhaps because the humor is often so time specific. Vacation has largely been branded as a remake of the hilarious 1983 road trip comedy, National Lampoon’s Vacation, which featured a screenplay by the great John Hughes, and starred Chevy Chase in his most memorable role. The updated film is actually more of a true sequel, with Ed Helms playing the grown-up son, Rusty, who proves to be as hapless at planning family vacations as his daddy, but that’s about where the similarities end as this foul and unnecessarily crude Vacation may have you choosing to go in to the office instead.
Written and directed by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the duo responsible for inflicting The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and two Horrible Bosses movies on an unsuspecting populace, Vacation is basically a series of low-brow skits loosely connected by a nostalgic family road trip. But what is desperately missing is the heart and sense of familial bonding that powered Hughes’ screenplay, replaced by rimjob and vomit humor. The story is essentially the same as the original. Helms plays Rusty, who has grown into a wacky dufus just like his father, Clark. Planning to take the family on yet another boring trip to his favorite campground, Rusty sees their lack of enthusiasm and decides to try something different. Instead, he takes wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), pencil-neck son James (Skyler Gisondo), and vulgar young son Kevin (Steele Stebbins) on a journey to Walley World, the amusement park that he went to with his family as a child. Cue the comic mishaps.
During one clumsy but chuckle-worthy scene, Rusty self-referentially makes light of the earlier Vacation, “This Vacation will stand on its own”. And he’s right, in a way, as this film is definitely about ramping up the gross-out factor and pushing boundaries, perhaps too much so. The attempts to be raunchy are heavy-handed and desperate; there are only so many glory hole and sexual perversion jokes to go around, and yet this film continually finds a way to add more with diminishing results. The original movie certainly went out there on occasion, particular in the scenes involving cousin Eddie and his kids, but it never felt like a crutch to be leaned on. However, Daley and Goldstein feel beholden enough to the original to try and top it on occasion, which usually ends in some kind of comic misfire. A scene at the Grand Canyon involving Charlie Day as a suicidal river guide is worth a few laugh for the visuals alone, but isn’t funny like the brief stopover the Griswolds made there in ’83. Another scene literally crashes and burns while paying homage to Christie Brinkley as the unobtainable object of Clark’s affections.
What’s a real shame is that there is potential for a much better and funnier movie here. Helms’ Rusty doesn’t resemble at all the prior versions of the character; perfectly fine considering the number of actors who played him, but he brings a constant trepidation (especially in regards to his wife’s substantial sexual experience) that is one of the film’s highlights. His shrieking terror at the highly-destructive features of their souped up Albanian rental car (it has buttons that literally blow the thing to smithereens, but at least it has two gas tanks) show his gift for physical comedy. Less effective is a terribly uncomfortable scene in which he tries to be Rusty’s wingman (already awkward) to hook up with a young girl, only to come across like a pedophile on To Catch a Predator. Christina Applegate, who has suffered through far too many underwritten wife roles in the past, does her best to struggle through another one. She gets one terrific moment in which she revisits her old sorority and tries to prove she’s still a wild child at heart. It goes vomitously wrong for her, of course, but Applegate literally throws herself into the moment and makes it work. Chris Hemsworth devours the chance to cheese it up as the buff, big-muscled, well-endowed Texas Republican husband to Rusty’s sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann), playing off his persona as a charismatic perfect physical specimen. A wealth of talent goes to waste in bland, unfunny cameos, including Keegan-Michael Key, Kaitlin Olson, Michael Pena, and Nick Kroll.
Unfortunately, not even the re-emergence of Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as Clark and Ellen Griswold can put any gas in Vacation’s tank. At the very least, Chase still has the off-kilter weirdness that made Clark such an unforgettable character, but the screenplay gives him nothing to work with. He arrives just in time to hammer home the movie’s point, that the journey is more important than the destination, even when the journey blows. With little payoff to justify all of the pointlessly crass attempts at humor, Vacation fails to make either the journey or the destination worth it. Consider a “staycation” instead.