‘Vacation’ Review: This Sad Sequel Truly Is a Road Trip from Hell
Full disclosure: I missed the last 10 minutes of Vacation. Last night’s press screening started 20 minutes late, then began without any sound, which lead to a 10 minute delay to correct the technical difficulties. With an unbreakable engagement elsewhere, I had to sneak out right before the very last scene. So take this review with as many grains of salt as you’d like. If you think those final minutes might recontextualize everything that came before to transform a generally miserable comedy into a beacon of transcendent hilarity, so be it. Having sat through the previous 90 minutes, I’m of the opinion that nothing short of the long-lost missing footage from Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons could have redeemed this dreadful film.
Give it this much: the way writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein make their Vacation both a sequel to 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation and a sort-of remake is kind of ingenious, at least from a marketing perspective. After a long series of Vacations about the bumbling misadventures of suburbanites Clark and Ellen Griswold (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo) and teenage kids Rusty and Audrey (played by different actors in each of the four previous movies), the new version follows the grown-up Rusty (Ed Helms), as he drags his own wife (Christina Applegate) and kids on a road trip from hell. Sensing his family is in a rut, he cancels the clan’s original vacation plans, rents a wacky Albanian minivan, and sets off across the country for Walley World, the fictional amusement park Clark and company trekked to in the original Vacation. Things, predictably, do not go as planned.
Many of the jokes are frustratingly predictable as well. When Rusty’s introduced piloting a regional jet for a low-rent carrier with a decrepit co-pilot he fought to keep from an early retirement, there’s no doubt the plane is headed for near-disaster when Rusty leaves the cockpit for a bathroom break. In fairness, I must admit I did not anticipate the scene where Rusty attempts to clean a dirty motel shower with a giant wad of pubic hair he mistakes for a Brillo pad. But that’s because the whole scenario makes absolutely no sense. Who likes pubic hair so much that they actually collect it into a giant tuft, but also cares so little about their collection that they forget it in a motel room? And what sort of person is so mouth-breathingly stupid that they confuse a pile of pubes for a Brillo pad?
The answer, apparently, is Rusty Griswold, who, as played by Helms, is basically Clark Griswold 2.0, right down to his awkward mannerisms and clueless advice to his teenage son James (Skyler Gisondo). His cluelessness is inconsistent, though. Early in the film, he leaps at the chance to explain glory holes to James and his younger brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins). A few scenes later, he has no idea what a rim job is, mostly to set up a moment where James accidentally propositions a girl for a rim job. A lot of the gags are like that; reverse engineered from punchlines with no regard for whether they make any sense in the film, like the lengthy sequence at the Four Corners built around a bunch of gratuitous cameos.
The original Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, certainly had its moments of absurdity, but there was an even funnier truth at its core about aging baby boomers trying to live up to their idyllic memories of their own childhoods. Daley and Goldstein’s Vacation bears almost no resemblance to a recognizable reality, so the best one can hope for out of it is a collection of funny non sequiturs. When the non sequiturs are mostly pubic Brillo pads and a sewage dump the family somehow mistakes for a hot springs, there’s nowhere for the film to go but down in flames along with the Albanian minivan.
The few bright spots mostly belong to Applegate, who is admirably game to degrade herself for the audience’s pleasure and shines in her big showcase, a drunken return to her old college sorority. There are also a few good bits in the Griswold’s detour to visit Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her cowboy weatherman husband (Chris Hemsworth) who enjoys herding cattle, making random faucet metaphors, and parading around in his house in his bulge-revealing skivvies. Both Mann and Hemsworth score a couple of genuine chuckles, but even their sequence wears out its welcome with a pointless and cringe-worthy conclusion where Hemsworth teaches Helms to herd cattle with tragic results. There isn’t a single laugh in the whole cattle drive, but its explosive finale does provide a nice metaphor for the experience of watching Vacation. (Rusty represents the movie, the cow he kills its attempts at comedy.)
Even with Applegate, Mann, and Hemsworth, and Chase and D’Angelo back for a brief cameo, there’s something genuinely dispiriting about this Vacation. Before co-writing the reasonably funny Horrible Bosses and creating this film, John Frances Daley was the star of Freaks and Geeks. How does the man at the center of one of the greatest television shows ever made about teenage life have so little to say about nerdy teenagers and their hapless parents? Maybe all his best observations were saved for those last couple minutes I didn’t see. It’s possible. But I won’t be going back to find out anytime soon.