Movie Review: Vacation
By Ben Gruchow
August 3, 2015
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?
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.