First time feature directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein are looking to revitalize the fabled National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise with the aptly titled, Vacation, due in theaters July 29. Daley and Goldstein also wrote the film which finds a grown-up Rusty Griswold looking to recreate the Walley World road trip from his youth with his own wife (Christina Applegate) and two sons. Even from its opening credits, Vacation seems to know the fine line it must walk between respecting the franchise and not simply retreading what has happened before. Where once the opening credits featured bizarre postcards now they show Awkward Family Photos from the road. Where there was once a gaudy green station wagon now there is the Prancer, the ultimate in bizarre road trip comedy wheels.
It’s clear that Daley and Goldstein have a reverence for the franchise and they took great care in finding the right voice to bring it back to the big screen for the first time in the better part of two decades. The last installment was Vegas Vacation, notably, the only PG entry in the franchise, and the worst received. Vacation returns to the series’ R-rated roots. This gives Helms and Applegate room to play in familiar comedic territory and engage in the rapid-fire, no-holds-barred comedy at which they both excel. It also leaves room in the script for some brilliantly wrong moments — see an ill-informed Rusty telling his elder son that a rim job is just slang for a kiss, and then offering him one — and some choices that are more convenient for joke-slinging than anything else — see the younger son’s stream of swear-laden exclamations that aren’t nearly as “oh no he didn’t” funny as intended.
At its best, Vacation is uproarious, at its worst, it’s just trying a little too hard. Fortunately for audiences, this Vacation has more successes than failures, and that means plenty of laughs. Helms is the perfect choice as the successor to the Griswold patriarch throne, he has that same manic ability as Chevy Chase in his prime. Christina Applegate delivers a performance with her typically brilliant physical comedy and sharp tongue, her Debbie is a welcome change from Ellen — where Ellen spent so long apologizing for her husband, Debbie takes plenty of opportunities to call Rusty out, and to cause some chaos of her own. Chris Hemsworth is a total scenestealer as Audrey’s (Leslie Mann) hunky husband, Stone. Charlie Day, Norman Reedus, Keegan-Michael Key, Nick Kroll, Kaitlin Olson, Michael Pena and Colin Hanks all join in on the fun in a collection of humorous cameos that compliment the core cast well.
They say you can’t go home again, but it seems you can go on the road again. Vacation is funny enough to surprise the cynics and create a memorable trip, even if it can’t fully escape the shadow of what came before it. The real strength to Vacation, however, is that it doesn’t feel the need to deny its roots. It strives only to live up to them.