Aggressively stupid and often stupidly aggressive, “Vacation” is the latest RebooMaQuel™ to believe that mining our collective nostalgia and upgrading that fondness with much edgier, filthier gross-out humour and profanity will deliver something new and entertaining. Like those that have gone before it, it fails because it doesn’t understand what made the originals work.The “National Lampoon’s Vacation” films – or at least the ‘good’ ones: “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” – worked because at the heart of the story, there was a sweetness to Clark Griswald’s desire to give his family the perfect vacation. A goofy kind of optimism that despite every setback, obstacle or misfortune, contentment was just around the corner. Clark, Ellen, Rusty and Audrey were relatable, sometimes frustrating but fundamentally likeable.
This new instalment picks up with the family thirty years on, give or take, when Rusty, now a husband and father himself decides to take his wife and his two sons on a cross-country road trip to Walley World. Unfortunately, this Griswald family have retained all of the dysfunctionality of the previous generation but replaced that innate likeability with a foul-mouthed mean-spiritedness that gives most of the humour a spiteful edge.
There’s a really clever meta moment early on in the film where Rusty flips through a photo album at all the family’s previous vacations, complete with the differently cast Rustys and Audreys from the various movies followed by an all too knowing conversation about whether or not this vacation will be any different from the original vacation, with the children moaning that they’ve never even heard of the original vacation but it’s a cruel trick, because the film never manages to be that smart again. The first forty-five minutes or so sees the film trying far too hard to shock and amuse with a series of slapstick and scatological set pieces and manically overplayed discomfort comedy. By the time the movie stops being so self-conscious and settles into itself, it’s already alienated much of its audience’s good will. The film’s feeling of being a threadbare retread of the original movie isn’t helped by the fact that pretty much all of its best gags are showcased in the trailer, leaving little to surprise and delight in the full feature and quite a lot to plain dislike. Writers and debut directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M Goldstein are keener by far to get to their next dumb set piece than to imbue any of the characters with anything remotely approaching empathy and in terms of their cast seem content to stay out of their way performance wise as long as they hit their marks and get covered with just the right amount of human waste.
Ed Helms and Leslie Mann are actually pretty good fits for grown up Rusty and Audrey while Christina Applegate is a veteran at these kind of films thanks to the “Anchorman” movies. Skyler Gisondo is the odd one out, being generally sweet, likeable and endearingly wussy as the older brother but Steele Stebbins has nothing to do but be a hateful little shit as younger brother Kevin, a part written in such a vile way that his only role is to undermine any moment which may be achieving the slightest level of pathos or hope. The unexpected curve ball of the whole movie though is guest star Chris Hemsworth as Stone Crandall, Audrey’s husband. His admittedly brief cameo absolutely steals the picture, erasing much of the disappointment which has gone before it and continuing to amuse during the rest of the movie. It’s in stark contrast to some of the other guest stars, especially Keegan-Michael Key who is simply downright annoying.
Despite the best efforts of the writer/ directors to maintain a breakneck pace of crassness and profanity, the film still manages to sneak in a few genuinely sweet moments between James (Gisondo) and his would-be girlfriend Adena (Catherine Missal). They’re few and far between, though and inevitably ended by Kevin’s antics but given this is a movie where the potential collapse of the Griswald’s marriage is glibly resolved with a two sentence conversation, what do you expect?
Across its near 100 minute run time, there are a few good laughs (outside of Hemsworth’s scenes) but overall “Vacation” is a cynical revamp of an original movie which was only ever a reasonably good comedy. It has none of the heart of its predecessors – mostly because it’s so focussed on the bowels and genitals – and mean streak a mile wide. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.