Vacation (2015) / Comedy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: R for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity
Running Time: 99 min.
Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Catherine Missal, Ron Livingston, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Charlie Day
Small role: Norman Reedus, Keegan-Michaen Kay, Regina Hall, Michael Pena, Colin Hanks
Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein
Screenplay: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein
Review published July 29, 2015
Over thirty years after National Lampoon's Vacation would become a hit film, enough to spawn three sequels, one which has become a holiday staple for some families with Christmas Vacation, we finally get another sequel. Yes, a sequel, not a remake, even though, for all intents and purposes, it is that too.
Although the original couple, Clark and Ellen Griswold, do make an appearance, Vacation in 2015 concentrates on their 40s-ish son, Rusty (Helms, Stretch), who is now also a husband and father of two. Like his dad, Rusty is a bit klutzy and more than a little daft, even if he has earnest intentions for keeping his family entertained and loved. Though flawed, it's hard not to root for a guy who, above all else, wants to experience the joy of singing along to Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" with his family accompanying him in the vocals.
From here, Vacation follows the formula of the first film, often making reference to it, while also venturing out into different situations that the original Griswolds could have also gone on if we had more clips of their road adventures along the way. 2015's Vacation ups the lewd and crude factor of the 1983 release significantly, and engages a bit too often into mean-spirited gags that will make one feel uneasy more than laugh, including no less than a half-dozen references to pedophilia, a couple of rape jokes, the aforementioned suicide, a few attempted suffocations, grotesque cannibalism, and a family dip into a creek filled with raw sewage. Underneath the modernization of the ick factor for an audience that has become accustomed to gross and tasteless humor, the basic formula is the same: father subjects his family to activities with escalating embarrassment, mother tries to be a good sport but defers to him, siblings spat with each other throughout.
Speaking of siblings, Rusty's own sibling from the earlier Vacation films, Audrey (Mann, The Other Woman), also makes an appearance, now a wife and mother as well. She doesn't get many jokes to deliver, as wives take a back seat in these films, while her husband Stone, played by scene-stealing Chris Hemsworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron), pushes the Griswolds with lots of politics and sex and other things one shouldn't really discuss with new company. Hemsworth and Mann are such good at playing for comedy that it makes one wish we followed the vacation of Audrey instead of Rusty, though that might require tampering with the tried-and-true formula in ways that would upset series purists.
The casting isn't bad, with Helms and Applegate (The Book of Life) a likeable main couple, even if they've already been beaten to the punch a bit with the similarly premised We're the Millers, which had also been a bit funnier. Vacation is directed an written by the team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Horrible Bosses), who do an efficient job at sticking to the tone and overall structure of the original series, but they also feel confined to it, which makes some of the humor feel overly familiar and occasionally forced, especially when it tries to deliver raunchier laughs.
As the film enters it's climax and ending, Vacation runs out of ideas, especially in its way that Clark and Ellen Griswold feel inexplicably thrown in through happenstance. Chase (Hot Tub Time Machine 2) has long since ceased being very funny, and poor Beverly D'Angelo (Playing It Cool) is given nothing at all to do in her scenes except merely to exist. Lots of other recognizable character actors make cameo appearances here, including Charlie Day (Horrible Bosses 2), Ron Livingston (Parkland), and Michael Pena (Ant-Man), plus some other surprises I won't spoil, though they're all as hit and miss as the rest.
It makes little sense to nitpick much about the plot (or relative lack thereof) of a Vacation flick, as, at its core, this is a series built on trying to amuse us in the audience through the plight of a calamitous couple who suffer a series of embarrassments that will greatly rival our own, all the while allowing for a modicum of empathy because we've likely suffered through our own skirts with family disasters in our time, especially when going on trips outside of our comfort zone. All we care about is whether we find the film amusing, especially in how often it will deliver on its promise of big laughs.
My experience is that the film hits its stride during a handful of scenes (Hemsworth is amusing, as is an incident at the Four Corners Monument where Rusty and Debbie attempt to have sex in four states at once), while the rest is largely not funny, especially when we can see the machinations of the formula set-ups for so-called hilarity to come. As with most absurd comedies, your mileage will vary, though I feel the film is much like the Tartan Prancer that's at the heart of the trip: full of needless components and a few undesirable surprises, and persistently runs out of gas almost as soon as it feels like it's about to really get going again.
©2015 Vince Leo