Believe it or not, it’s been over thirty years since “National Lampoon’s Vacation” first hit theaters. The new movie, “Vacation,” is sort of “Griswolds: The Next Generation,” as Clark’s son Rusty, all grown up and now played by Ed Helms, tries to help his own family bond by taking them on a vacation. The fact that Rusty actually thinks a road trip to Walley World is a good idea is substantial evidence that insanity may be congenital. This formulaic reboot, however, is strictly a retread, lacking the dark lunacy of the original, settling for a few typical shock comedy laughs.
It’s not that nothing funny happens in “Vacation” – there are some good laughs sprinkled here and there, some of the best, unfortunately, in the opening credits, which is done to the first of three arrangements of Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road.” But make no mistake, this is a pale imitation of the original. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” had a screenplay by John Hughes, whose other scripts included “Sixteen Candles,” “Mr. Mom,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Home Alone” – in short every movie from the eighties you’re nostalgic about except the ones with Eddie Murphy or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Add to that the fact that the original “National Lampoon’s Vacation” was directed by Harold Ramis, creator of “Ghostbusters” and director of “Groundhog Day,” and you realize that the bar to following this one up is actually set pretty damn high.
The first movie did spawn a franchise: “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” in 1985, the classic “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” sort of a “It’s a Wonderful Life” on acid, in 1989, and “National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation” in 1997. Each of the original movies had their own identity and destination. They never had the Griswold’s repeat a vacation, which is very much what’s going on here. We’re doing a road trip again, and there are several places where they want to repeat material under the guise of “homage.”
Helms does a creditable job of playing Rusty Griswold as a chip-off-the-old block, but it’s open to question as to whether Rusty would be all that much like his dad, even bearing in mind that Rusty was previously played by four different actors in the original movies (Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki and Ethan Embry). The screenplay, apparently in relentless search of a laugh, no matter how cheap, makes Rusty virtually creepy at times, which the movie (and its audience) could have lived without. The always-reliable Christina Applegate plays Rusty’s frustrated wife Debbie, who the script makes less sympathetic than might have been advisable. The couple’s younger son, Kevin (Steele Stebbins) bullies his older brother, and is so thoroughly obnoxious that the audience is likely to start questioning whether child abuse has been overstated as a social ill. As older brother James, Skyler Gisondo, who played young Shawn on “Psych,” and Emma Stone’s younger brother in “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” emerges as the movie’s one completely sympathetic character and its emotional center.
Leslie Mann (“Knocked Up,” “This Is 40”) appears briefly as Audrey Griswold, which is a stretch, even considering that the part was last played by Marisol Nichols, who is now the only semi-happy trophy wife of Texas TV weatherman Chris Hemsworth, whose accent passes muster if you try not to think too hard about it. Hemsworth’s comparatively brief screen time here is dominated by a protracted dialogue scene in which he shows off most of his godlike physique, clad only in boxer briefs that conspicuously barely manage to cover Thor’s hammer. A much briefer cameo by “Walking Dead” star Norman Reedus is far funnier. Charlie Day, as a white water tour guide, provides one of the movie’s funniest scenes. Original series stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo appear in cameo appear in an almost painful cameo that makes you long for the original movies.
We have co-directors here, not necessarily a bad thing, but they’re both making their directorial debut. That worked on “Airplane!”, which had no fewer than three co-directors, all making their directorial debut. The results are less impressive here. John Francis Daley is an actor and writer who was two when “National Lampoon’s Vacation” was released. Jonathan M. Goldstein is older – he was born in 1969 – and is a writer and producer. They co-wrote “Horrible Bosses” and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” which are okay but not in the Hughes league. As directors here, they’ve produced a movie which has uneven pacing and is certainly no better technically than it needs to be. There’s an almost cartoon-like tendency to ignore the consequences of the Griswold’s periodic disasters, which seem to be all but forgotten by the next scene.
And although there is plenty of material in the movie that warrants the R rating, the movie is seldom as shocking as it seems to want to be or thinks it is. The bottom line is that although they seem to think they’ve made a shock comedy here, but only periodically do they have the balls to push the envelope. Plenty of R-rated comedies have been made in the last few years that went much farther than “Vacation,” which ultimately seems fairly tepid in between the few big laughs. “Vacation” is a slacker movie that will be far easier to take on home video, where viewers won’t have to resent first run ticket prices. But binge-watching the original movies would be much more fun.
“Vacation” is currently showing at theaters across the Capital District, including the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas 11 & BTX on Railroad Avenue in Saratoga Springs, the Spectrum 8 Theatre on Delaware Avenue in Albany and Hathaway’s Drive-In 0n Route 67 in North Hoosick, New York.