Remaking any film is already a sketchy proposition in and of itself but when you target something that already got it right out the gate it begs the question of why even bother? Earlier this summer we saw the exact same problem with the the Poltergeist remake, which was both a critical and commercial failure, but now we are faced with the remake to National Lampoon's Vacation, a comedy classic that defined the American family for a generation. Can this self aware franchise reboot stand on its own or is it doomed to join the countless other failed remakes out there? Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 39 min
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: July 31, 2015
Loves: National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
Likes: Christmas Vacation
Neutral: European Vacation
Hates: Vegas Vacation
What happened to National Lampoon?: The magazine's last issue shipped in November of 1998.
Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is all grown up and has a family of his own with his loving wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and his two sons, the socially awkward older brother James (Skyler Gisondo) and the future homicidal maniac Kevin (Steele Stibbins). Growing up with a father like his, Rusty understandably is extremely family focused despite the fact that he isn't exactly sure what his family truly wants or needs. After discovering that perhaps his wife and kids aren't as happy as he thought he decides to take them on a road trip across the country to the exact same destination his dad took him when he was a kid, Wally World! While not very excited and doubting whether or not this trip will be as good as the one he went on over 30 years ago (that joke worked better in the trailer) they hop on the road anyways and begin a journey that will either bring them closer together or pull them further apart.
This 2015 update to the Vacation movie franchise (this really isn't a reboot or a remake but more of a sequel) has it's heart in the right place. Unlike many other retreads to come out of the Hollywood machine the people behind this Vacation seem to understand the basic framework of the previous films even if they don't fully understand the nuts and bolts of it. Family, that is what every Vacation film, even the bad ones, have focused on and the idea of following a grown up Rusty with his family is actually one of the better ideas for bringing an old franchise out of moth balls. While the family aspect is handled admirably enough, the problems arise with how the Griswolds are a bit to proactive during their trip and not so much reactive making them the main cause of their problems more than simply being victims of circumstance.
In the original film Clark just wanted to take his family on a trip to the world's greatest theme park, Wally World (their version of Disneyland which in reality was filmed at Magic Mountain). This wasn't motivated by family problems such as having an older son who has difficulties around girls, a younger son who has homicidal tendencies or a wife who is seemingly bored in the relationship. There were no reasons given for the trip other than that is what families do, they go on trips. Most of the humor was derived from the mundane nature a trip across the country would evoke such as stopping at tourist traps and visiting relatives along the way.
Sure, those encounters were exaggerated but they were taken from a real place that most audiences could relate to. The humor in this new Vacation takes its queues straight from the school of "if it is gross, painful or otherwise unpleasant then it must be funny" more so than the mundane realities of life. For instance take a look at the very first pit stop the Griswolds make, which is Debbie's old fraternity where low and behold they just so happen to be throwing a large party using a competition based game to help earn money to cure Aspergers Syndrome (which of course you know is spelled Assburgers for complete comic effect). What do you think the chances are that Debbie not only is familiar with the game they are playing, but is the actual person who came up with it? How about the off chance that Debbie decides to participate and proceeds to vomit profusely everywhere while getting the crap beat out of her?
Looked at strictly as a scene made to make us laugh, it works. But does it feel like a Vacation movie? No, not really. As silly as the first Vacation would get, most of the actions of the Griswolds fit their personality. Clark wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed and not exactly the alpha male most men fantasize about being, but that never stopped him from trying to act the part because which husband or father wouldn't try to be that person? The same goes for his wife Ellen. If Ellen was faced with the same situation as Debbie there is no way she would just suddenly decide to get plastered in front of her kids and go for broke. She would do it if forced or otherwise enticed but she wouldn't do it just out of spite.
There is absolutely no reason for Debbie to partake in that event (especially being only a few hours into their trip) but she does it anyway. You know why? Because it would be funny to see her vomit everywhere and get beat up. This is how the entire film is structured with each character getting their moment to do something completely out of character and then going for it. Another example is a scene between Rusty and his older son James at a pool where he asks his dad what a rim job is. Where Clark would awkwardly try to find a way to explain it to Rusty and fail miserably, the joke here is that Rusty simply doesn't know what a rim job is which leads to a joke that is funny, but like everything else just feels forced and out of character.
Those interactions between the family are pure magic though when compared to how unfunny their many pit stops are on the way to Wally World. Aside from the aforementioned frat party, there is a painfully dull and predictable visit to Rusty's sister Audrey's (Leslie Mann) house where they meet her well endowed husband Stone (Chris Hemsworth) who aside from loving to show off his junk to everyone likes to herd cattle with ATV's which leads to one of the many gross out gags in the film. Another stop they make is at the Grand Canyon where they go white water rafting with a guide (Charlie Day) who is contemplating suicide after just breaking up with his girlfriend right in front of them which results in them almost dying (and one of the strangest edits of the film where the Griswolds are literally about to go over a waterfall to their deaths and the next scene they are curiously in their car driving to their next destination...weird). Oh how we miss you Eddy.
None of anything during those and many other random encounters (including a visit to Clark and Ellen's home which isn't nearly as satisfying as it should have been) ever feels like a Vacation movie. Yes, they are going on a vacation, but there is a formula to how those other films were constructed and executed that aside from the basic framework of the script is totally missing here. Even when they eventually arrive at Wally World it is one of the most underwhelming moments in a movie in recent memory where the big pay off is a completely nonsensical conclusion to a conflict started at the beginning of the film between Rusty and a fellow airline pilot (Ron Livingston). There is no satisfaction seeing these Griswolds reach their destination which is a testament to how the film failed at creating a connection between its characters and its audience.
This may all be coming off as overly negative which really isn't the intent because the truth of the matter is that for how much this Vacation doesn't feel like the previous films and sort of fails at living up to that title, it does have a lot of laughs. It's just that those laughs are more There's Something About Mary than they are Vacation circa 1980. If you like yourself some gross out jokes and plenty of slap stick at the expense of character development then there is a funny movie in here, just so long as you don't expect this to carry on the legacy of the other films that came before it. The running gag of the dysfunctional rental car is almost worth the price of admission alone.
While not exactly a hallmark of consistency or quality, the Vacation films were at least blessed with a good cast (this was the pivotal role in Chevy Chase's film career) and a unique blend of family values and some inspired lunacy that seemed to be lurking around every corner of their doomed trip from one end of the country to the other. This 2015 update finds itself in a strange grey area where it doesn't exactly fit the mold of the Vacation formula but when taken out of the context that it is supposed to be a Vacation style movie it can provide a few well earned chuckles. The cast is game for just about anything and the script, while littered with fecal and gross out jokes, does contain some genuine instances of comedic brilliance. It's too bad the finished product doesn't resemble the franchise it's title suggests which will relegate it to instant cinematic obscurity.
Making a new Vacation movie shouldn't be this difficult should it? It's not like anyone was asking for the writers or director to re-invent the wheel or something. What's worse is that the film openly steals the exact same story from the original Vacation and can't even seem to get that right. In the world of worthless and pointless Hollywood retreads, Vacation isn't a horrible debacle, it just sort of meanders its way to its destination while the audience wishes they would have just taken a plane.