Vacation (2015) [dir. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein]

Posted: August 5, 2015 in Uncategorized

If you grew up in the 80s, or the 90s, I’m sure you love at least one of the “Vacation” films. I always had a special place in my heart for the second film in the series, “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” (1985), partly because I had always wanted to go to Europe (I eventually did in 2014) and partly because seeing ignorant Americans exposed to Europe is always fun for me.  In the midst of the rest of the great things the late John Hughes was doing in the 1980s, he wrote three “Vacation” films.  The original “Vacation” (1983) is perhaps rivaled only by Hughes’s own, later film “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” (1987) as the best road trip comedy of all time. Chevy Chase, playing the smiley faced patriarch with anger always bubbling beneath the surface and a horndog’s appetite for women, was the quintessential lovable dope that we could all imagine being our Dad. Beverly D’Angelo played the loving, doting wife who always walked on eggshells to try not to hurt her poor dope husband’s feelings, and the kids, Rusty and Audrey, were played by a revolving door of child actors.

After “Vacation” and “European Vacation” there was “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989), in which the family didn’t actually go on a vacation, but the resulting film was exceptionally funny and has become something of a Christmas classic, being shown annually on TV alongside Christmas classics in marathon cable showings.  Eight years later, dropping the National Lampoon label and having no involvement from the then-retired John Hughes, “Vegas Vacation” (1997) arrived and was scorned by critics and audiences.  I kind of enjoyed “Vegas Vacation” as a goofy little PG comedy that in no way measures up to its predecessors, but many people don’t even know that the film exists in the series.  Even more forgotten is a horrible made-for-TV spin-off sequel called “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure” (2003) which centered on Randy Quaid’s character from the first and third films.  Quaid has since left Hollywood to be crazy and make cringe-inducing sex tapes with his wife while exiled in Canada.

Now we have a reboot of the “Vacation” series, with Ed Helms playing an adult Rusty Griswold with two young boys of his own and a blonde wife (Christina Applegate) who is too good for him.  Helms partially channels Chase in his portrayal of Rusty, but also channels his character from “The Office”, who was also a likeable dolt with anger issues. Applegate is less doting and has more repressed and not-so-repressed disappointment in her wife than D’Angelo ever did, but she’s largely effective in her role here.  The kids, played by Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins, are largely one-note as the older lovesick, sensitive brother and the younger violent, sociopathic brother.  They each bring some laughs, but they lack the appeal of the young Rusty and Audrey from the other films.

The plot this time has Rusty wanting to take his family to Wally World when he notices they’re not as close as he’d like them to be, and that his wife hates the same, boring vacation they take every year.  On the road trip they hit a number of adventures that I can’t describe without ruining jokes, but suffice it to say they encounter weird truck drivers, Audrey’s (Leslie Mann) uber-Conservative weatherman husband (Chris Hemsworth clearly having fun) cannibalistic animals, raw sewage ponds, late night orgies at roadside attractions, more supermodels in Ferraris, a drunken sorority house with surprisingly little nudity, and cameos from Chase and D’Angelo, who run the laziest bed & Breakfast ever.

This new “Vacation” won’t become a classic, but it’s good enough. It has a decent number of medium-sized laughs evenly distributed throughout the film, and has some meta-jokes (Helms dangles some keys, indicating he’s going to show us a new car, only for the music to cut out and the other characters to stay in place, not taking the hint to move on to the next scene for a reveal) for the film savvy.  The film sometimes can’t decide if it wants to be a gross-out comedy in the Farrelly Brothers vein, or if it merely wants to be an 80s-style raunchy R-rated comedy (the tones are more different than you’d think) and so sometimes the film goes for unrealistic vomit humor, and other times for more subtle verbal humor (Helms not knowing what a rimjob is).  I also have gotten tired of end credits with poor photoshop. Make the photos more convincing, or cut that shit out.

The writer/directors of this film are John Francis Daly and Jonathan Goldstein. Daly is perhaps most famous for playing Sam on the great TV series “Freaks & Geeks”, but together these guys wrote the decent “Horrible Bosses”, the sub par “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”, and the direct-to-VOD and unseen by me “Rapture-Palooza” (bad timing that it came out around the same time that “This is the End” did, though they have a shared cast member in Craig Robinson).  They are also writing the new “Spider-Man” reboot, though I’ve seen nothing in their filmography indicating they can pull that one off.  As writers they guys seem to have potential, but their films tend to be ones of better concept than execution. “Vacation” is their funniest and strongest film, but it has  some weak moments as well (would four cops form four different states really mock-fellate each others guns in a fight?)

If you’re not expecting a classic and just want a light, fun little movie that will be fun while you watch it, “Vacation” does the basic trick. B.

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