Editor’s Notes: Vacation is currently out in wide theatrical release. For an additional perspective on the film read Vacation: An Entirely Unnecessary Retread That Constantly Contradicts Itself by Brandon Hart.
After four theatrical, feature-length films in fifteen years and a subsequent, made-for-TV spin-off few remember, the series that began with the Harold Ramis-directed, John Hughes-scripted Vacation slipped into the realm of late-night, basic cable, DVD/Blu-Ray, and online streaming, but where there’s pop-culture nostalgia, there’s a rights-holder eager to capitalize on that nostalgia, regardless of whether fans of the series want another entry in the series, a remake, a sequel, or both. Not surprisingly, the result of said pop-culture-nostalgia and an exploitation-eager movie studio, Vacation (the “National Lampoon” part of the title disappeared long ago), may have just won the unofficial award for the worst mainstream comedy of the year, with five months still left on the calendar. Equal parts atrocious, abysmal, and awful, Vacation relies on lowest-common-denominator comedy of the gross-out kind and a steady stream of painful, cringe-inducing humiliations for the central family.
Vacation may have just won the unofficial award for the worst mainstream comedy of the year, with five months still left on the calendar.
When we meet Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms, taking over for Michael Anthony Hall, among others), he has almost every a straight, white male could ask for, a materially comfortable life, a semi-respectable job as an airline pilot for a budget airline, an inexplicably adoring wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and two sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). While a tiresome running joke involves Kevin, the younger brother, bullying his older brother, an arty wimp (Vacation gets zero credit for a progressive take on masculinity), there’s little dissension in the Griswold household until Rusty, spurred by a false, amnesia-fueled bout of nostalgia, decides to take his unwilling family on vacation to Wally World, the site of the elder Griswold’s emotional and mental breakdown. With only a Tartan Prancer, a foreign-made minivan, available, Rusty rolls his family into the beginning of a road trip that predictably goes awry, supposedly in all sorts of comedic ways (that aren’t).
The road trip premise should have given co-writers and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan H. Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) ample opportunities to wring laughs from the Griswold clan’s constant stream of bad luck. Instead we get a semi-inspired side trip involving Debbie’s college sorority (she was a party girl) and copious amounts of vomit, a motel from figurative hell (pubic hair alert), a hot springs filled with raw sewage (excremental humor alert), an extended stay with Rusty’s married sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann), and her super-buff, TV weatherman husband, Stone Crandall (Chris Hemsworth), and a rafting trip featuring the world’s most depressed guide, Chad (Charlie Day). Daley and Goldstein focus repeatedly on Rusty, a well meaning, earnest omega male, and debilitating inadequacies that would make an ordinary man in the real world both unemployable and unmarriageable.
By Vacation’s final stop, Wally World, it’s become agonizingly obvious that neither the journey nor the goal was worth the time, effort, or expense involved on both sides of the camera.
Of course, “reality” or verisimilitude isn’t a prerequisite for comedy. In fact, the opposite is often, if not exclusively, true, but comedies, regardless of how exaggerated or non-real they’re supposed to be should, at minimum, make us care, even if only on a superficial level for the central characters. That minimal requirement seems to have been outside the grasp of Daley and Goldstein’s abilities. Instead, they were content to follow the original film’s formula, add R-rated humor (i.e., anything involving bodily fluids, excrement, and sex and/or penis jokes), throw in callbacks to earlier entries (fan service), and unearned cameos by the original series’ co-leads, Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. In effect, Daley and Goldstein expect nostalgia and a game cast (kudos to Applegate and Hemsworth especially) to do the work their underwritten script and flaccid direction can’t and won’t do. By Vacation’s final stop, Wally World, it’s become agonizingly obvious that neither the journey nor the goal was worth the time, effort, or expense involved on both sides of the camera.
Equal parts atrocious, abysmal, and awful, Vacation relies on lowest-common-denominator comedy of the gross-out kind and a steady stream of painful, cringe-inducing humiliations for the central family.