Directors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Stars: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate
1 Globe (out of 5)
The first “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is easy to overrate and underrate. It’s a TV classic, and therefore a target for kneejerk nostalgia. But it’s also, in its heart, a dark look at the then-nascent suburban mentality in the spirit of Preston Sturges, sending up middle class types who believe they’re obligated to easy living. Chevy Chase’s exuberantly traditional Reagan-era dad is driven mad by his pursuit for nothing more than what he thinks is owed him, namely a nice, incident free family vacay. It also has urine sandwich jokes, incest jokes and jokes about scary black people stealing hubcaps.
The new reboot/semi-sequel, simply called “Vacation,” keeps the dumb jokes, chucks the rest. It takes the sarcastic, lovingly disrespectful, “21 Jump Street”-movie route — an odd thing to do for a franchise that was already a comedy. It’s self-aware, but not self-aware in the ways that count. If anything it’s more reactionary, which is impressive given the original was written by noted Hollywood conservative John Hughes. It doesn’t have much to say about how we live today, or the state of the by this point fading middle class. It does, however, have plenty to say about the state of movies in 2015. It makes the dire “Vegas Vacation” look like the original “Vacation.”
Ed Helms is ideally cast as Rusty Griswold, who’s really not the Rusty played by Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki, Ethan Embry and Travis Greer. The previous Rustys tended to be more skeptical and hip, except for Lively’s incarnation, who was just a mindless horndog. Helms’ Rusty is simply Clark 2.0: a chipper square unaware of his deeply buried insecurity issues. Realizing his own family vacations have been lame, he embarks on recreating the original, dragging wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) to fictitious California theme park Walley World, but only after driving through numerous, warmed-over mishaps.
The best of these involves a pit-stop with sister Audrey and her beefcake weather man husband, played by Leslie Mann and a somehow never more ostentatiously manly Chris Hemsworth. That’s not because of what happens (some so-so sexual innuendo, an ill-advised fit of cattle rustling) but because Mann and Hemsworth are game, making yuks out of not much at all. Mann has maybe three lines of dialogue, but they’re all well-deployed. Its speed is really established by the Lindsey Buckingham-backed opening credits, featuring anonymous family trip photos of buttcracks, erections and pigs boning.
Despite being a modern movie, it still resuscitates regressive jokes about “arty” sons, mountain men and foreign cars. (The latter is admittedly sometimes amusing, with bizarre features that suggest someone involved saw Jacques Tati’s “Trafic.”) Sexual politics remain Neanderthalic too. Applegate has taken the dubious task of becoming the go-to actress for bringing recognizable humanity and sharp timing to thankless token female roles. For the record, Debbie’s given a soupcon of backstory, plus a sex drive, although both are subject for scolding — feelings to get over en route to reestablishing family first. Eventually Chase pops in and acts crazy-creepy, bumbling about maniacally as his era of comedy is repurposed for scrap iron.
To its credit, if you will, “Vacation” has next to nothing on its mind except the next lowest common denominator set piece, including a nonsensical dip in a sewage pit and an anticlimactic visit to the park itself, which gives up precisely when the first went next level. It’s a hodgepodge of stuff, like a lot of blockbusters these days — things unthinkingly lumped together as rapid-fire sensations. It doesn’t even seem to realize how mean-spirited it is. The first “Vacation” killed a dog and an old woman, but it did so with an unsettling gravity that is the spirit of dark comedy. This one mistreats the older son in ways far more cruel than the mere bullying he gets from his sibling, just because it will do anything for a laugh except things that are actually funny.