In July of 1983, we watched as Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) embarked on a cross-country adventure with his family, filled with hijinks and hilarity. It became a definitive masterpiece in the road trip comedy genre and cemented itself as a cinematic classic. In July of 2015, we watch his eldest son Rusty (Ed Helms) attempt to the same. Writer-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s VACATION, a new iteration of the Griswold’s foibles and follies, embodies the original’s wide-eyed optimistic spirit and humor. Although it doesn’t quite get there in terms of earning instant classic status with too many gross-out gags, it’s interesting to see a film about family that isn’t kosher for the entire family. There’s something glorious about that.
Rusty thinks he’s attained the quintessential American dream: a steady job, a beautiful wife, two kids and a large home in the Chicago suburbs. However, upon closer inspection, his perfect life isn’t all that perfect. He’s pushed around at his job as a discount airline pilot by a rival big airline pilot (Ron Livingston). His wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) is becoming increasingly less interested in their annual vacations to their lake cabin, yearning for more excitement. And their kids? Well, youngest Kevin (Steele Stebbins) bullies his older brother, sensitive musician James (Skyler Gisondo, a.k.a. the film’s breakout MVP), hurling insults and fists whenever the opportunity presents itself. To get his house back in order, Rusty decides there’s no better way to regain that elusive familial bond than to recreate his best vacation ever – a road trip to Walley World. As the new generation of Griswolds pile into the oddly-designed, funnily-buttoned bright blue Tartan Prancer (a character itself), shenanigans immediately ensue. Run-ins with a pedophile trucker (which builds to an inevitable cameo appearance, natch), an encounter with suicidal river-rafting tour guide (Charlie Day), and sing-a-longs to Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” (utilized perfectly to mark how the family is bonding – or rather not) follow.
For the 5th movie in the series (if you count Cousin Eddie’s TV movie – I am), VACATION is far better than it has any right to be. Irreverent and an insane riot, there’s an unexpected hue of sweet sentiment buried within the layers of comedy stylings, making it a heavenly revelation for the franchise. John Hughes, who wrote the original as a fond recollection of his own family vacations, might not totally approve of all the gross-out gags (nor did I). But Goldstein and Daley’s script and direction keep the Griswold’s spirit alive and protected – at least within very specific parameters. The characters all have story arcs; no one is forgotten about. Comedy is allowed room to breathe, giving air to the cast’s comedic craft. The filmmakers thoughtfully (never sloppily) place homages to the original throughout. Blessedly they don’t rest or rely on them either. From the hot girl in the red Ferrari, to hearing Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” ring out over the Awkward Family Vacation photos in the opening credits, to seeing one other iconic thing from the original lest I spoil its reveal, the film works hard – maybe at times a little too hard – to earn fans’ approval.
Where VACATION takes time off from its National Lampoon/ John Hughes-ian legacy is when it diverts into revolting territory. While I’m relieved this isn’t WE’RE THE MILLERS, a film that shares a similar vibe, this can still be classified as a raunch-com. The pre-requisite low-brow/ low hanging fruit jokes are plentiful; the motel shower sequence made me wanna puke. Chris Hemsworth, who plays over-sexed conservative Texan Stone Crandall, has one genuinely absurd joke about “drinking bourbon and crying over the state of America” with Chuck Heston – but it’s overshadowed by a crass bit about a cannibal cow. And the dip in the sewage-filled lake, well, you can probably guess how I feel about that. Plus, it gets more than a little sad and jarringly distracting seeing Chase, whose appearance has changed drastically since last we saw him on COMMUNITY, clumsily bumble about with a guitar seemingly for no reason. Even though he’s able to pick things back up in a following scene, his reintroduction to the series makes the lasting impression.
This proves being a Griswold, or even just liking them, isn’t such a bad thing any more. It’s perfect for the whole family – if your family is a more than a little messed up.
3.5 out of 5
VACATION opens on July 29.