Forget, for a moment, the critical drubbing New Line’s sequel/remake/reboot of National Lampoon’s Vacation has already taken and the likely box-office indifference it’s about to face. Let’s back up to the theoretical: Was there ever a chance that a resurrection of this particular series would have been successful?
Movie Review: Vacation
By Ben Gruchow
August 3, 2015
More than just about any other franchise that’s been targeted by a brand-happy Hollywood, the Vacation series is beholden to its decade; not for nothing is the sole 1990s entry, 1997’s sterile Vegas Vacation, the least-remembered and least-relevant. This new entry—titled simply ‘Vacation’—is a top-to-bottom misfire, mean-spirited and juvenile, but I feel curiously forgiving toward first-time writing/directing team Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley: I don’t know that anyone willing to take up this franchise again could have turned out a better result.
Regardless, this is a listless and lazy piece of work; it manages to escape barrel-scraping reprehensibility by the skin of its teeth, but it comes close. The thing that made the original Vacation work was its temperament; everyone in it seemed primed on the edge of some kind of insane outburst. This was never more apparent than in Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold, but the sense that the entire population was teetering on the brink of explosion gave the first film (and the third, to a degree) a nervous, twitchy energy.
Part of that was down to good old-fashioned id: in the middle of the most timid and socially-conservative decade since the '50s, it’s way too easy to frame the character of Clark as an avatar for excessively buttoned-up and bottled-up rage and frustration - just as easy as it is to realize that the whole thing was a caricature of how the '80s, at their most reactionary, resurrected the concept of the family man. The result, in the case of Vacation, was some weird chimera of affable go-getter and violent psychopath. Chase was one of the very few actors who had the specific gifts to reconcile both of these in a way that worked as comedy.
Ed Helms, as Clark Griswold’s grown son Rusty, does not have those gifts. He’s got the affability, and the poker face, and that’s about it. He’s too gentle and rounded-off for this role, which requires jagged edges and the sense that all of the optimism is masking a short fuse. When Rusty finally does erupt in a fit of rage - you knew he was going to, and he does it for the same reasons and at what I suspect is right around the same point in the movie’s runtime - it lands with all the force of a child’s tantrum. It’s an uncomfortable thing to watch, but not in the way it’s intended.
There’s a good hour or so of movie to get through before that point, though, and Vacation takes its sweet time setting up more or less the exact concept from the original: Rusty, as a pilot for a low-cost airline, decides to take his family to Walley World and echo the vacation he had as a kid. Much of the setup is curiously neutered; the movie more than earns its R rating, but you feel like the movie is shooting for outrageous and landing at predictably scatological.
Consider the ubiquitous hot springs sequence from the ads. It’s vile and gross, but lethargic. There’s no sense that any of this amounts to more than actors utilizing props. Or witness the layover at Audrey Griswold’s house, with Leslie Mann and Chris Hemsworth forced to interminably extend tired punchlines; this sequence slaughters any momentum Vacation might have been building up to that point. If the movie can’t bring itself to exalt any energy over the proceedings, why should we?
Occasionally, a guest actor will venture onto the scene and bring it perilously close to life in the spirit of the original films: Regina Hall’s family friend nails the passive-aggressive tone of a hopeless social-media addict, and Charlie Day spearheads the only sequence in the movie that actually feels like it touches that dark vein of volatility from the first Vacation. Unfortunately, neither of these characters make an appearance beyond their single allotted sequence, and Day’s river-rafting sequence whiffs on its ending, with bland staging and some truly atrocious CGI work.
We spend more time with Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, in a sequence that is, I guess, meant to pass the torch from Clark to Rusty for any future Vacations. It’s been a long time since Chase has brought any manic energy to his screen work, and he doesn’t start now; instead, he’s here for a grotesque little cameo that exists solely to push the plot along to its final act and introduce a host of plot holes in whatever passed for the Vacation series’ universe (remember how, in the first Vacation, the Wagon Queen Family Truckster was a loaner, present only because Clark’s new car hadn’t arrived yet? This movie doesn’t). D’Angelo fares even worse; the actress has natural comic timing, and so the movie appropriately saddles her with somewhere between one and two lines of dialogue.
Clark and Ellen Griswold’s cameo also marks the absolute last moment in the movie that’s worth any kind of anything. From here, Vacation moves onto its final set piece and chain of events, and just describing what happens in that way gives the ending more significance and heft than it deserves. It’s not so much a climax and falling action as it is an exhausted petering-out, as if Daley and Goldstein had backed themselves into a corner and couldn’t think of any way to finish off their story than to put it through the most soporific, enervating conclusion available.
Ironically, a major player in the final scenes is Ron Livingston, playing a more esteemed rival pilot; he’s sharper, darker, and more charismatic than Helms, and he would have made an appropriate Rusty Griswold. He barely puts in an appearance, though, and our consolation prize is an ending that sucks all the air out of the auditorium and probably the one next door; it’s followed by end credits showing off some stunningly bad Photoshop work - the worst in a major motion picture in years, if ever. It’s an appropriately sour and mercenary note to end the film on.