You’ve seen the best part of Vacation already. You could probably tell when you first watched the trailer for the not-quite-a-remake sequel-reboot. Ed Helms, playing the grown-up son from National Lampoon’s Vacation, is trying to rally his uninterested wife and sons behind a road trip to Walley World, just like his original trip there. One of his sons remarks he’s never even heard about the first vacation. “Doesn’t matter,” assuages Helms. “The new vacation will stand on its own.”
Even with all the advertising having spoiled that genius serving of meta, that setup scene is comedy gold. You may get your hopes up that this could be a pleasantly brilliant surprise, like 21 Jump Street or The LEGO Movie. But much like the central road trip of either Vacation, everything falls quickly apart and gets increasingly ugly.
Rusty Griswold (Helms) is stuck in a rut. He’s a pilot for a disgraced airline, his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), is living a life of resigned acceptance, and his meek son, James (Skyler Gisando), is viciously and relentlessly bullied by his younger son, Kevin (Steele Stubbins).
After having an epiphany, Rusty packs up his family, rents the best vehicle he can get on Memorial Day with no reservation, and hits the road to recapture the memories of his cheerful youth and bring his family together the same way his father once did when he broke into a closed amusement park and held a security guard at gunpoint.
The new Vacation covers the original movie almost beat-for-beat, seemingly hoping that drawing attention to it being an obvious retread will make it look like a conscious satire instead of the laziness it really is. Swap Clark’s cousin Eddie for Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann), do an updated cover of Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road,” trade in the red corvette and Christie Brinkley for younger models, and voila! A new movie you’ve seen already!
Vacation’s unoriginality and laziness could honestly still be forgiven, if not for the fact the script works so hard to be mean-spirited and shocking that it commits the greatest sin of forgetting to be funny. There are actually a lot fewer jokes within the movie than you might expect; it falls on the cast to try and make things are comedic as they can with what they have.
Seemingly aware of how inconsistently humourous their movie is, writer-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein rely on a conveyor belt of famous faces and cameos, hoping that dazzling the eye with a new surprise appearance every five minutes will distract from Vacation’s fatal flaws. As an audience member, you start to feel like a grown person having keys jingled in front of them insultingly.
Because Vacation has been allowed an R rating by Warner Bros., the movie goes overboard just because it can. I lost count of how many F-bombs are dropped, but at least 20 or 30 or them are from the mouth of an 11-year-old, because hey, isn’t it funny when kids say things they’re not supposed to? How about lots of lingering shots of a really well-endowed sex organ, for the sake of eliciting awkward laughs through audience discomfort? Surely the inhumane slaughter of livestock is comedy gold, right?
If there’s one shining beacon in Vacation, it’s the running gag of their rental car, an Albanian station wagon that looks like a Volkswagen designed by Hayao Miyazaki. It has multiple gas tanks, rear-facing and forward-facing side-view mirrors, and electrical cords that don’t retract. The key fob has dozens of confusing buttons with symbols ranging from a rocket ship to a muffin to a swastika. (“Yeah, we’re just not going to press that one.”) And the GPS very quickly gets stuck in an alarmingly angry Korean voice.
Almost all of the bits involving the car are absolutely hysterical, which just puts into contract how unfunny all the rest of the movie is. Helms truly tries his best, and is perfect for roles like this. There’s just so much fighting against him, the boat’s doomed to sink no matter how fast he bails. Vacation may want to stand on its own, but when the foundation’s this weak, it’s not even worth the trip.