Just to make sure we’re all in line: The new movie Vacation isn’t a sequel (yes, it is), and it isn’t a remake (yes, it is). It’s that new mash-up of the term called reboot. We know that because there’s a scene that tells us this fact. After all, this Griswold family vacation doesn’t even include National Lampoon’s banner…This is just Vacation. But this sequel-remake-reboot combo supposes that Rusty, raised by Clark Griswold, has more or less become his father.
Actually, that isn’t really fair to the character of Rusty. He sort of becomes Clark in the course of this trip. He seems like a pretty absent father during the first part of the film, but then we find out that isn’t true, so I was confused about his character, played by Ed Helms. But also following the traditions of the original Vacation films, dad is married to a beautiful blonde who just puts up with his hi-jinx, and two bickering children … this time two boys.
The older son whose supposed to be an “effeminate,” non-violent kid, which is supposed to be hilarious to the audience. Their younger son seems to want to parrot Eric Cartman (neither of these kids are especially funny). They take the same trip from Chicago to Wally World in a stupid-looking car and see the glory of the great American road trip.
Oh, and there are a lot of gross and mean-spirited jokes.
Not that the first Vacation (or any of its sequels) didn’t take some delight in the same elements. After all, they killed a dog and ate sandwiches that it had urinated on. But there’s a difference between this new film and the older Vacation films—I’m not including Vegas Vacation, because it wasn’t written by John Hughes—and it’s the reason this movie is a pretty depressing follow-up to at least the first three films in this franchise.
In the first three films, as many times as the movies went over the edge, there was an authentic family dynamic motivating the movie with an overly exuberant dad at the center. None of these movies were perfect, but that family aspect provided what heart these films needed to keep interest during a movie that’s really just a series of bits and scenarios. Personally, as unpopular as it is to say, I (and my entire family) have a soft spot for European Vacation, because that’s the one that actually made the kids feel like characters with their own personalities as memorable as Clark and Ellen.
And because of that, the dynamic of the four together suggested a real, eccentric family—even when doing completely unrealistic things. For example, my favorite scene in that movie is when Rusty convinces Audrey to call her boyfriend long distance from the hotel room. That’s a ridiculous moment, but the sentiment between siblings does come through. But Vacation, starring Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, never feels like there is really a family at its heart.
They feel like a disconnected cast whose main priority is to deliver jokes written by the team behind Horrible Bosses (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein). Whether you agree or not, John Hughes did have the good sense of writing the Griswolds as an actual family, and the directors of the first three films understood how to get the actors to feel familiar with one another (the fact that Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki feel like afterthoughts in Christmas Vacation is somewhat made up for with the very authentic extended family). In this film, the extended family are Clark and Ellen, who for some reason moved to San Francisco to open a bed and breakfast (after losing all their money in Vegas in the last film), and Audrey (Leslie Mann), who has become a Texas trophy wife to the anti-Cousin Eddie (Chris Hemsworth), a conservative, handsome Texan weatherman who raises cows and sports a huge penis (an extended joke).
Mann and Hemsworth are both occasionally funny in their brief appearance, but complete caricatures. And it feels wrong and cruel to have Audrey, the only other “next-generation” character from the other films, treated as disposable. When planning this reboot, they could have picked either kid (or even both) to follow, but this reboot had to pick “the boy,” and continued to make the “sexy blonde wife” an afterthought. Too bad, because I think if there is one saving grace in this film, it’s probably Applegate, who is a very funny, go-for-broke kind of actress who made me laugh a few times.
Ed Helms can be a really funny actor, but this is not a defining role for him, particularly because of how inconsistently his role was written. Skyler Gisondo and Steel Stebbins are child actors who don’t really have a strong sense for comedy. There are a lot of cameos in the movie, some of which made me giggle, but most of which aren’t really funny.
But nothing made me as sad as seeing Chevy Chase.
D’Angelo barely has any lines and is really in the film just to be recognized as someone familiar, but Chevy Chase has become so slow and clumsy with his once rapid physical comedy that I wish they just hadn’t bothered to include the parents. It’s odd that they’ve decide to focus on a character who’s been completely malleable in these previous films. Rusty and Audrey adapted in these films based on the actors cast and circumstances of these vacations. And while that’s a clever way of making the series something that can be rebooted, it also means I really went into this one with an odd sense of nostalgia.
The premise of the franchise is brilliant; the everyday eccentricities of the American family should work. But to think I have any affection for this version of Rusty, once again played by a brand new actor, is a little ridiculous. It feels like an attempt to recapture the familiarity of the original, when they could just as easily told this familiar story from a mother’s perspective (Audrey) or found an entirely different family (Regina Hall and Keegan Michael Key’s family are the funniest parts of the movie). I have no interest in Helms’s Rusty, who seems like a big jerk, and his often mean-spirited family.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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