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Vacation REVIEW: “Vacation” aims low for laughs, mostly misses

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If there’s anything that can be said with certainty, in regards to latest entry in the saga of the Griswold family, simply entitled Vacation, it’s that it truly takes the effort to bring the laughs to a whole new level.

It’s a far lower level, mind you, and much of the humor stemming from more profanity in the dialogue than you might be used to hearing in these films, along with gags which are just likely to make you cringe as they are to make you laugh. But a few of the set pieces do manage to hit home, and those, along with memorable contributions from Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day in small roles, help keep Vacation from being an entirely dreadful waste of your time and money.

Perhaps a more apt title for this entry in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series might have been “Griswolds: The Next Generation”, for it is here, at last, that the torch is passed from old-timers Clark and Ellen (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, who reprise their roles yet again) to a grown-up Rusty (Ed Helms), his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), and their two sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). Rusty, now a pilot for a small-time commuter service airline, gets wind of the fact that Debbie and the kids are woefully tired of the family’s now-tedious annual vacations to Cheboygan, Michigan and comes up with the perfect remedy: a trip to the very same Walley World theme park that dear old Mom and Dad took him and sister Audrey off to on vacation thirty years ago.

Is a trip to Walley World really what the family wants or needs? No, not especially. Debbie dreams of a vacation in Paris, while way-too-sensitive James writes songs on his guitar, keeps multiple diaries and poetry journals, and dreams of a day when horrible kid brother James won’t verbally abuse him or otherwise make his life miserable. James, for his part, absolutely loves berating and belittling his wuss of a brother and just dreams of being able to do it forever and ever.

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Put this oh-so-loving and functional family in a car for a road trip from Illinois to California and what could possibly go wrong? Oh, and not just any car, but what can only be the “Cadillac” of Albanian family vehicles, the Tartan Prancer, a car so absurd in design and features that it makes old Clark’s old Wagon Queen Family Truckster look positively sexy in comparison. Thus the comedic horrors of a family vacation as only a Griswold family can experience them begin, horrors that include but are not limited to figuring out what all the buttons in the Prancer conveniently not labeled in English actually do, a side trip to Debbie’s old college alma mater where she’s fondly remembered by her sorority with a very unflattering nickname, a one-night visit with Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her phenomenally successful Texas weatherman husband Stone Crandall (Hemsworth), and repeated, Duel-like encounters with a 18-wheel truck and its unseen driver who may or may not be trying to kill them.

You can just hear Lindsay Buckingham singing “Holiday Road” in your head, can’t you?

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As written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Horrible Bosses, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), this Vacation works very hard to honor the tone and spirit of the original 1983 classic National Lampoon’s Vacation while also delivering the types of laughs that tend to work well with today’s audiences. In the vein of the original films, Rusty, as played by Helms, draws a great deal from Chevy Chase’s many portrayals of Clark, a man whose seemingly-boundless optimism and dogged determination to show his family a swell time whether they want it or not tends to drive him to ludicrous lengths. Much of what’s supposed to be funny about Rusty’s relationship with his brood is that he really thinks they’re a happy, functional family and that they adore him, and how he takes it as that sweet delusion endures blow after crushing blow as things go wrong. As delivered on screen, some of it is funny, but most of it is just barely chuckleworthy. Applegate, like D’Angelo before her, gets the task of being the smarter, saner Griswold parent, and so the laughs she brings come more from her reactions than her actions on screen, but she does have one particular opportunity to cut loose in the film and step away from being “Mom”, leading to one of Vacation‘s funnier (and grosser) sequences.

The actors who might score more consistent laughs throughout the film are Gisondo and Stebbins, who play the young brothers Griswold, in particular Stebbins, who brings to life the ultimate nightmare of a little brother. Kevin can always be counted on to profanely mock, denigrate, and otherwise dehumanize his elder sibling, never once believing for a second that James is even capable of fighting back, and for most of Vacation he’s right. The big name actors with bit parts bring bigger laughs than the headliners, as well; Chris Hemsworth, taking a much-needed opportunity to step away from the cape and hammer of Marvel’s Thor to flex his comedy muscles, is hilariously over-the-top as the strapping, Texas-twang speaking Stone, whose every word and gesture is a caricature of American conceptions of male virility, while Charlie Day shows up as an overly-enthusiastic river rafting guide who gets some very bad news right before he’s to take the Griswolds down into the rapids. As for Chase and D’Angelo themselves, well, suffice to say they make the most of their screen time playing the elder Griswolds in a position now where they can make other people’s vacations miserable. It’s irony as subtle as a sledgehammer, but it is funny.

But for all its good intentions and deliberate attempts to remind audiences of the original Griswold misadventure, the new Vacation is a very uneven, hit-or-miss journey into the depths of road trip hell that’s unlikely to become the comedy classic that its predecessor did. Are there laughs to be had? Absolutely there are, yes. Unfortunately, a good number of them are either in the film’s opening and closing credits, each a montage of terribly timed or otherwise awkward vacation photos set to the classic “Vacation” theme music, or they’re in clips of the film you’ve already seen in the trailers and commercials. Also, keep in mind the film’s “R” rating — you’re much more likely to get some enjoyment out of this Vacation if you prefer your humor as potty-mouthed as possible.

Vacation
Starring Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Leslie Mann, Beverly D’Angelo, and Chevy Chase. Directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley.
Running Time: 99 minutes
Rated R for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity.

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Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.