Harold Ramis took the family vacation movie off cruise-control in 1983, proffering a deliciously crass road trip film lead by an insolent (and borderline sociopathic) father figure in Chevy Chase and penned by none other than the mighty John Hughes. A sickly twist on nuclear morals and unadulterated, thoroughly punitive obsession, National Lampoon’s Vacation etched a dark twist on small town American dreams, couching the woes of extended family, the thirst for adventure and the troubles of enclosed spaces in with themes of adultery, abuse, abandonment and totally warped family values; with a corporate theme park ironically standing in as a last bastion of joy. Ramis’ was no small feat – he had crafted a thing of jet black social commentary that sang out with sharp barbs of comedy.
While National Lampoon’s Vacation managed to epitomize the staying power of true comedy iconography, John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein have made something quite different and yet quite the same with Vacation. With a good measure of corporate laugh-track taste and assembly-line quality (and a fair dose less social instigation), 2015’s Vacation is very much a safe modern remake. It’s also rather funny.
A parfait of hilarity, dumbness and sheer business, Vacation revisits the world of the Griswolds 20-odd years later. Rusty Griswold – who had always seemed more in touch than his crackpot poppa – is now a father himself. Bride Debbie (Christina Applegate) hankers for a respite from their annual trek to the “family cabin” and catching all the wrong types of signals, Rusty opts for an odyssey to Wally World of his past, a far stretch from the lavish trip to Paris Debbie had envisioned.
Ed Helms plays Rusty as an inexperienced, enthusiastic underdog – more objectively likable than Chase’s Clark but nowhere near as edgy or, by extension, entertaining. He may have his pilot’s wings but he still can’t fly away from the joke that is himself. As the captain of the worst airbus around (EconoAir), Rusty’s the frequent butt of jokes and even succumbs to bus stop bullying at the hands of rival pilot Ethan (Ron Livingston). The antithesis of worldly-wise, Rusty’s filtering of parental knowledge unto his children is a far stretch from the beer-sharing wisdoms of the elder Clark. Whereas Clark used shallow deception to normalize his antisocial behavior to his children, Rusty lacks a basic understanding of the finer points of adulthood. Or, for that matter, teenagedom. His ignorance proves our bliss as he tries to hack misunderstandings into teachable moments.
Sons Kevin (Steele Stebbins) and James (Skyler Gisondo) each represent a spectrum on the see-saw that is masculinity with younger Kevin often beating on James for being “weird.” The scenes play for laughs (and often achieve them), skating over the sexual subtext that could have made for some rich social commentary. But rich social commentary shall not be found here. This is a stick-em-up, funny or die effort. Almost unabashedly so.
And though a litany of cameos line the screen with more than enough reasons to point and titter – Charlie Day, Norman Reeds, Keegan-Michael Key, Regina Hall, Nick Kroll, Michael Peña, Kaitlin Olson and Colin Hanks all pop up at some point or other – there is a notable lack of depth to Vacation’s arc that these cameo appearances can only attempt to fill in for. The place where a film’s soul should reside is instead crammed with a potpourri of familiar faces, executing (admittedly funny) distractions to keep your attention squared away from its over-arching lack of purpose.
Perhaps the finest example of this can be seen in the dichotomy of Leslie Mann and Chris Hemsworth as Rusty’s sister Audrey and her Southern entrepreneur husband Stone Crandall. Allusions to the seams in their marriage and Audrey’s desire to be a contributing member to the family (and society) is narratively overshadowed by a prosthetic bulge in Hemsworth’s tighty whities. I like to think that 1983’s Vacation would have spent more time poking fun at inherent social injustices than poking a penis around the screen but alas, who knows. And though Stone’s member might be meaty, it’s probing in shallow water. Instead of tucking into the more unsavory, socially relevant dark side of women being professionally sidelined, 2015’s Vacation presents us with a face full of d*ck. Again, I still laughed though.
Uneven to a fault and sorely lacking a definitive reason to exist, Vacation still packs a bounty of chuckles under its hood. Points should also be extended to a cast (particularly Helms and Applegate) that is more than willing to make jokes at their own expense. Though some of the film’s best one-liners (“I hope you’re not too old to let your dad give you a good night rim job”, “Sounds like you found yourself a glory hole!”) have been spoiled by the trailer, there’s still enough comedic padding to justify a watch for those on a quest for a laugh. You would not however be remiss sparing yourself the road trip and saving this one for a home viewing.
CONCLUSION: Dumb, meandering and in need of a more well realized arc, Vacation is nonetheless quite funny.