A film review by Craig J. Koban August 6, 2015

 

VACATION j
 

2015, R, 99 mins.

 

Ed Helms as Rusty Griswold  /  Christina Applegate as Debbie Griswold  /  Steele Stebbins as Kevin  /  Skylar Grisondo as James  /  Leslie Mann as Audrey Griswold  /  Chris Hemsworth as Stone Crandall  /  Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold  /  Charlie Day as Chad  /  Elizabeth Gillies as Heather  /  Beverly D'Angelo as Ellen Griswold  /  Keegan Michael Key as Jack Peterson  /  Regina Hall as Nancy Peterson  /  Ron Livingston as Ethan

Written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein

It’s very fitting that the new VACATION – the sort of sequel, sort of reboot of the National Lampoon VACATION series – has one sequence showcasing multiple characters covered in human excrement and another when one poor soul is dowsed with the blood, guts, and brain matter of an unintentionally murdered cow.  

I felt like these people while enduring VACATION, which emerged as one of the most thoroughly depressing filmgoing experiences of my summer.  I felt dirty watching this dirty movie, which somehow has the silly audacity to think that the finest way to modernize an iconic comedy classic is to up the ante on gags involving sickening and gross-out bodily functions and maintain an overall vibe of hostile mean-spiritedness.  This new VACATION is bawdier and cruder than anything that came before it, which is ultimately sad.  It’s also way, way less likeable and enjoyable than any previous series entry. 

The 1983 Harold Ramis directed, John Hughes scripted, and Chevy Chase starring original is so entrenched and coveted in my mind.  It’s arguably one of my most watched screen comedies of all-time.  Now, that film was hardly a family friendly affair, to be true; it earned its R-rating and, at the time, certainly was considered crass and vulgar.  Yet, Clark Griswold and his family were nevertheless engaging and agreeable personalities as they trekked across America in search of the fun-times Holy Grail that was Walley World.  This family felt like a real family made up of real people, and despite the wacky and sometimes tragic events that transpired for them, they were a tight knit unit that I wanted to spend time with in a cinema.  This VACATION mixed comedic raunch, feel-good sentiment, and family traveling nostalgia with a sure-fire swiftness.  

 

 

All of this is hopelessly lost on the makers of the new VACATION.  Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (whom also penned the script) appear to have superficially ripped off the basic premise of the Ramis film while, at the same time, displaying little understanding of what made his film joyously tick in the first place.  By upping the sleazy and charmless humor they feel, I think, that they're just fundamentally making a VACATION film that is of our time and popular comedy zeitgeist.  Yet, when viewers watched Chase’s Griswold clan they saw versions of themselves – warts and all – sort of reflected back.  While watching the new VACATION this new Griswold unit – despite being played by a few highly competent actors – never once feels like a plausible dysfunctional family.  They’re not really endearingly sweet personas at all.  Some of them are just downright detestable. 

Some of the casting choices here (considering the fact that this film follows the established time chronology of the earlier films) also left me puzzled.  Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold as an adult, the same Rusty that was in his mid-teens 32 years ago in the Ramis original, which would make current Rusty closing in on 50, leaving Helms physically looking like an odd fit for the character (not to mention that he bares no resemblance whatsoever to Anthony Michael Hall, whom played Rusty in 1983).  Logic aside, Rusty is a chip right off the old block, meaning that he’s just as noble minded, but clueless as his dear old dad.  He’s outwardly happy, but inside he’s terribly dissatisfied with his job as a pilot for an economy airline (how he manages to have such a lavish suburban home based off of an income from a bargain-basement budget airline is beyond me). 

Like Clark before him, Rusty decides that both he and his entire family needs to jump-start themselves out of apathy.  He wants to take his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and his two sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) all the way to – yup! – Walley World, just like he did with his family three decades ago.  A 2500 mile trip in the tight confines of a car between Chicago and L.A. has little appeal to both Debbie and her sons, but the perpetually chipper Rusty puts his foot down and insists that it’ll be the time of their proverbial lives.  History repeats itself for Rusty during his trip, which is beset with a series of ever increasing social horrors and roadblocks along the way. 

Even though the first VACATION film had its share of scatological shenanigans, I never felt like it was senselessly being puerile.  This new film revels in being tasteless and mindlessly crude, with Daley and Goldstein willing to literally thrown any repulsive scene in their film for hopes of scoring huge lowbrow shock laughs. There’s one would-be uproarious – and nonsensical – scene where Debbie ends up projectile vomiting everywhere as she tries to drunkenly make her way through her old sorority obstacle course.  Then there’s the aforementioned moment where the Griswolds – thinking they’re joyously swimming through a hot spring –  are actually bathing in a raw sewage disposal lake bed, covering themselves in fecal matter that they believe is body purifying mud.  When VACATION is not trying to fiendishly deplore viewers with bathroom humor, it tries to drum up multiple verbal jokes about pedophilia, rape, and the definition of sex acts like “rim jobs.”  All through this I was asking myself, “Why am I supposed to care about these people?” 

Ed Helms and Christina Applegate are highly competent and funny big screen comedians.  Helms had me in stitches playing a punishingly naďve man-child in CEDAR RAPIDS and Applegate is arguably the only actress that can one up and score big laughs playing opposite Will Ferrell in the ANCHORMAN films.  Yet, not even their established talents can’t save horrendously written characters.  Rusty himself is certainly a dweeby buffoon (like his papa), but he’s so aggressively dim-witted here that you want to just slap him upside the face, leaving one wondering what Debbie ever saw in this man.  That, and you know you’re in trouble when a comedy even makes some of the child characters toxically dislikeable.  Steele Stebbins younger brother character is established throughout the film as a disturbing bully to his older brother, frequently hurling out f-bomb riddled insults at him when he’s not – in one instance – throwing a plastic bag over his head to suffocate him.  Young children swearing up a storm is not as inherently funny as this film thinks it is; this foul and nasty little dude deserves to be in a straightjacket and not on a country spanning trip to an amusement park. 

There’s only one time when this VACATION legitimately felt like a VACATION movie…and that’s during the opening credit montage set to “Holiday Road.”  Beyond that, this new film is a cheap, pointless, dated, pale, and viciously unfunny imitator.  The film has a couple of amusing moments, one of which involves Rusty and Debbie trying to make impromptu love on the Four Corners monument, culminating in four officers from four states arguing with one another as to which one should get the arrest.  There are also some modestly fun moments involving Leslie Mann and Chris Hemsworth (playing Rusty’s sister and brother-in-law respectively) that scores some genuine laughs, mostly because of how Hemsworth drolly mocks his status as a big screen demi-god sex symbol.  Unfortunately, this new VACATION has next to no charm, wit, or (most importantly) sweetness in it.  The film is a mercilessly short 99 minutes, but watching it felt like being in a car with truly disagreeable people for dozens of hours on a trip to nowhere.  If I were going to teach a class on how to make a film that desecrates the memory of a cherished classic that came before it, then watching VACATION would be at the top of the curriculum. 

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