Thirty-two years ago, Clark W. Griswold Jr. set out on the family trip from Hell, and delivered one of the most beloved and memorable comedies that came from the since-disgraced National Lampoon label as a result. With Clark’s only son, Rusty now grown up and facing a family rut of his own, it seems that the apple has not fallen far from the tree, when Rusty starts to think like his father.
This setup for a combination sequel/reboot to the long-inactive Vacation series is very inspired, especially when it pulls in Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the new Griswold parents, facing a trip of unprecedented misfortune, just as Rusty did with his father so many years ago. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek bit where Rusty tries to explain his idea of rehashing the same trip to Walley World that he took in 1983, which is an effective fourth wall-poking gag that sets the tone of the movie very nicely.
To Vacation’s credit, it actually strikes a perfect balance between paying heartwarming homage to the original 1983 Vacation, and at the same time, never truly copying it. There are some carryover jokes from the 1983 original, but they’re given new twists and punch lines, firmly establishing the movie as being in the same spirit as its inspiration, but also definitely not being afraid to forge its own path. Rusty has his own family after all, now with two sons and no daughter, and they make themselves distinct from Clark’s brood pretty early on.
That said however, even though this Vacation has a clear sense of direction and enough laughs to fuel the trip, it definitely doesn’t surpass the 1983 original, and often seems to resign itself to standing firmly in that movie’s shadow. Even so, this new Vacation is still one of the better offerings in the series, being a considerable improvement over the underwhelming Vegas Vacation, the excessively ridiculous European Vacation, and the all-around disaster of Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure. Purists of the old movies might not enjoy the reboot occasionally straining for low-brow toilet jokes and gross-out gags, but for better or for worse, it at least carries its own identity, and does a satisfactory job of bringing this long-dormant, but oft-referenced franchise into the modern boom of R-rated comedies.
The adult Rusty Griswold is being realized by Ed Helms, who has perfected the persona of a well-meaning everyman who seems to constantly find himself in over his head, which helped him find his comedic niche in The Office and The Hangover. Helms’ expertise at this kind of character makes him a smartly cast lead for the Vacation reboot, and a worthy spiritual successor to Chevy Chase’s original Griswold family patriarch.
What separates Helms from Chase is the fact that his Rusty Grisworld feels more grounded, and comes from a more real-world place of going to increasingly drastic means to make the best of a bad situation, even as his family threatens to come apart. Chase’s Clark Griswold on the other hand felt more like a caricature, and like he was simply trying to deny all of the misery around him until he inevitably breaks down. That portrayal was still funny, but it is rooted in 1980’s comedy, and it’s great that Rusty’s character carries a more modern edge, riding nicely off of the boom of successful modern adult comedies like the Judd Apatow catalogue or Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, in that he feels like someone you could actually encounter in real life. The only time he treads closer to resembling Clark is during some awkward moments when he tries to be a confidant for his son, and is predictably unhelpful, as the son first discovers his sexuality upon continually bumping into a girl his age at every stop.
Unfortunately, the inspired new grounded direction for Rusty is tripped up slightly by the movie still basing its jokes on a lot of cartoon-ish, inconceivable scenarios. The writers clearly knew how to write their lead character’s personality, but in terms of the set pieces, it still feels like they’re writing for Clark, not Rusty. Helms still manages to be funny, and delivers a very lovable and amusing lead performance, even though the script puts him at a disadvantage, but the movie might have been better off if it had focused on more mundane scenarios, not simply trying to experiment with what kind of larger-than-life disasters that it could toss the Griswolds into at any given point.
Fortunately, Christina Applegate also proves a worthy successor to Beverly D’Angelo in the role of the exasperated wife, in this case, Debbie Griswold, with Applegate thankfully not just feeling like a tag-along, and getting some surprising history revealed about her over the course of the trip. A highlight scene with her places her in Rusty’s shoes in a way, as she tries to justify a former reputation for a scrutinizing audience, which naturally doesn’t go as planned, to hilarious effect.
Less well realized however is the movie trying to ground the marriage between Rusty and Debbie, teasing a dark moment that never truly comes to fruition. This is no doubt for the best, since it wouldn’t do for a Vacation movie to start becoming dark and depressing, but it begs the question of why the movie would see fit to go for such low-brow, ridiculous humour, and then try to interlace it with a more grounded emotional struggle. It creates some tonal confusion, and it further ruins comedic set pieces that didn’t make much sense to begin with.
Further compromising this attempt to ground the family is the fact that Rusty’s and Debbie’s children are sadly very one-note, and don’t feel very memorable compared to the child incarnations of Rusty and his sister, Audrey in most of the Vacation moves to come before. The older brother, James Griswold, played by Skyler Gisondo, is a typical sensitive, artistic wimp stereotype, while his little brother, Kevin Griswold, played by Steele Stebbins, is a typical incessantly foul-mouthed bullying sibling stereotype. The writers tried to get some laughs by making Kevin pick on James, despite the fact that Kevin is younger and smaller, but the joke quickly starts to repeat itself, and it may not amuse audiences for very long.
Going back to the classic Griswold’s, you do see Audrey, where she’s played by Leslie Mann, but she has a very small part, with Mann sadly being given nothing to work with. Mann is completely overshadowed by Chris Hemsworth to boot, playing her extremely attractive, hardcore right-wing cowboy husband, Stone Crandall, with Hemsworth snatching the movie and running with it, going on to be one of the funniest characters in the entire affair. Stone is basically the new substitute for Cousin Eddie, subbing in for Eddie’s role in the plot of the original 1983 Vacation (Eddie is mentioned once by Debbie, but not he nor his family ever appear in the reboot), except for the fact that he’s basically an anti-Eddie, being a highly beloved family member that Debbie and the boys appear to like better than Rusty, since he’s very manly, and seems to live the ideal Southern lifestyle. As with Eddie back in 1983, Stone is bound to be a fan-favourite side character, and one of the personalities that viewers of the movie will remember most fondly, especially with Hemsworth beautifully going for broke, and just having a ton of fun playing the part.
As the marketing suggested, you do see Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo in the movie, reprising their roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold, as a nod to the former Vacation movies, but they barely have any screentime, disappointingly being crowbarred into the third act. Beverly D’Angelo sadly barely makes an impression, and like Audrey, her character just isn’t given anything decent to work with unfortunately, even in her interactions with Debbie. There is a good, albeit brief heartwarming moment between Chase and Helms however, which carries a pleasant touch of passing the torch. Chase has sadly lost a lot of his touch as Clark however, looking quite old and tired, and struggling to replicate his former energy that made Clark such a delight to watch, trying to cram in some slapstick jokes that just don’t really work anymore. It’s nice to see Chase, but it’s small wonder that he wasn’t given a large role in the reboot.
Lastly, Vacation packs in quite a large amount of cameos, between Charlie Day, Norman Reedus, Keegan Michael-Key, Michael Pena, and several more beloved names. They all get their chance to contribute to the Griswolds’ misfortune, sometimes to mixed effect, but the cameos hit more often than they miss, thankfully. As I said though, despite some of the inspired character foundations, it still feels like the performances are contingent on the set pieces, which sometimes works, but can also create a Vacation reboot that sometimes feels like it’s struggling to fully escape the shadow of the original 1983 movie, which, frankly, did have a more universally memorable cast.
Vacation is not uninspired, and it does feel like a very well-conceived reboot, even though the destination of Walley World is the same as the original 1983 movie. Like I said, the reboot thankfully avoids rehashing the original, and even if you’re well familiar with the ill-fated trip to Walley World that Clark Griswold spearheaded back in 1983, you’ll still be able to enjoy the entirely different route that Rusty’s family ends up taking.
I do again stress however that the movie’s humour is very low-brow, as if it’s trying especially hard to assert its R-rating, as a way to link it with the original 1983 Vacation, and not its PG-13 follow-ups. If you enjoy low-brow humour then you’ll probably get quite a few laughs out of this reboot, but if you were hoping for something cleaner and wittier, you might be disappointed. Vacation does occasionally lean on a gross-out factor as too much of a comedic crutch at times, which isn’t unfunny, but it feels like the movie only set out with so many believable jokes in its arsenal, further evidenced by the fact that the movie is just under 100 minutes long.
The material that Vacation does pack with it carries enough laughs to justify the price of admission, even if there’s only a couple of true side-splitters. If nothing else, the set pieces carry plenty of creativity, even if they betray the otherwise more down-to-earth direction. Despite its ridiculous scenarios, Vacation does flow pretty well, and never comes with the sense of feeling disjointed or weirdly paced.
All in all, this is a well put-together comedy, even if it doesn’t quite compare to the likes of Spy or Trainwreck, which seem to be this Summer’s R-rated comedy champions. If you don’t mind the frequently amusing, but disgusting jokes, which run the gamut of poop, vomit and tongue-in-cheek bloodshed, you should still enjoy your trip with Rusty’s family overall, even if the original movie’s trip felt like it left more of an impression.
Vacation marks the directorial debut of frequent collaborators, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who also wrote the script. The duo most recently put together the scripts for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and are currently working on the script for 2017’s Marvel Cinematic Universe-set Spider-Man reboot being directed by Jon Watts.
Considering that neither Goldstein nor Daley has any feature directing experience, they manage to hold their own here. The two set up and frame jokes pretty well, no doubt benefiting from being able to work from their own script. Some of their directing inexperience shows however, in that the movie is set up to almost intentionally feel like a secondary imitation of the original 1983 Vacation, and the co-directors sometimes could have used a bit more confidence in their own vision.
Still, as I said, Vacation is put together well, even if it’s not the funniest movie of the year by any means. There is plenty of energy throughout the production, and the actors are clearly having fun, with Goldstein and Daley setting up each comedic set piece with a lot of care, and simply standing back afterward to let the actors do the rest. Again, it might have been better if the two weren’t afraid to experiment with some of their more thinly-written characters’ personalities, which might have made this reboot a bit more memorable, but considering how well they balance nostalgia and novelty with this reboot of a very beloved movie franchise, the work they have done is nonetheless commendable.
Vacation is clearly made with a lot of love for the original 1983 movie, right down to releasing on a Wednesday, simply so it could share the original movie’s July 29th release day. Sometimes, this love appears to override the integrity of the reboot’s modern vision, making it feel like a movie that’s so honoured to carry the mantle of a legendary comedy, that it’s afraid to actually try and surpass it.
Even if it is firmly in the shadow of the 1983 original however, the Vacation reboot does deliver the series’ best offering since the fan-favourite Christmas Vacation, even if it doesn’t quite surpass that either. It’s a huge improvement over the series’ mis-steps since Christmas Vacation, which came out way back in 1989, even if the excessive low-brow humour in the reboot sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard to assert that the movie is for adults, ironically making it more juvenile instead, despite the R-rating.
If you like the Vacation movies, you should definitely go see the reboot, since it helps to right some of the wrongs that this series has had its fanbase suffer through from the 90’s onward, even if it still doesn’t surpass the best legacy Vacation offerings. If Ed Helms’ Rusty Griswold is indeed to keep the series going from here, his first trip makes for a decent start, one that is ripe to continue in sequels, even it does have the misfortune of sharing the current movie selection with the far superior Trainwreck, which comes higher recommended for those simply seeking a great big screen comedy.
The return trip to Walley World may not have as much magic or be as memorable as the first trip, but it’s still a good enough time to those interested in the trek, if you’re willing to roll with the complete lack of plausibility that’s out to get these otherwise modern new Griswold’s.
- Ed Helms and Christina Applegate are effective new leads
- Perfectly balances nostalgia and novelty
- Several great cameos, especially Chris Hemsworth
- Ultimately less memorable than the original 1983 movie
- Gross-out comedy is often at odds with the more grounded direction
- Chase and D'Angelo cameo is underwhelming