Vacation is ‘a journey you don’t mind tagging along with, rather than an excruciating hellride’ says MacDara Conroy
Sometimes low expectations can be a good thing. Case in point being Vacation, a remake/reboot/sequel to the Harold Ramis-helmed 1983 original that starred Chevy Chase at the height of his Chevy-ness, dragging his wife and kids across the US in the family station wagon in a desperate cannonball run to some Disney knock-off theme park. The prospect of a modern-day retread of that sounds about as appealing as a root canal, and maybe even worse seeing that the starring role is filled by Ed Helms, once of The Daily Show but more lately that guy slumming it in bro comedies (bro-medies?) like the Hangover films. What happened to you, bro?
Anyway. Following an opening-title montage of unfortunate holiday snaps (to the soundtrack of Lindsay Buckingham’s ‘Holiday Road’, of course), this debut feature by Horrible Bosses writers Jonathan M Goldstein and John Francis Daley (the latter you might remember as Sam Weir, the curly-haired little brother in Freaks and Geeks) sets out its stall as both a sequel (Helms is a middle-aged Rusty Griswold, son of Clark; now a budget airline pilot with his own family) and a remake of sorts, as fears of a familial rut prompt this next generation of Griswolds – Rusty, wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), sensitive teenage son James (Skyler Gisondo) and his arsehole younger brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins) – to forego their annual summer cabin stay for a cross-country road trip to Walley World, just like Rusty did, and like we saw, when we were kids. Except this is totally different, as a shamelessly self-referential family-in-the-kitchen scene establishes: like, for one, there’s two boys in the family instead of a boy and a girl. It’s not the same thing at all!
Actually, they’re kind of on to something there. Because while it is basically the same movie (it’s only missing the National Lampoon bit from the title, because who cares what National Lampoon is anymore?), it’s not nearly as nasty or cruel (go back to the original, it’s meaner than you remember it). Sure, its basic DNA puts it on the same spectrum of cringe comedy, but the ratio of mortification to schadenfreude here is easier to digest than the sheer agony of, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The writers put the Griswolds through more than their fair share of scrapes – a Duel-inspired trucker with a vendetta, a dip in the wrong hot spring, an off-brand car with some unusual added extras – but never for so long as to leave you writhing in your seat, contorting like your very soul in actual physical discomfort. Also, there are no dead dogs.
That’s not to say there aren’t bits that really don’t hit the mark. Oh my, there are plenty of those. The ‘angry Korean’ sat nav is a gag from another era (and smacks of ‘which ethnicity can we get away with offending without losing box office receipts?’). There’s a repeated, strained effort to wring some po-mo funnies out of Seal’s ‘Kiss from a Rose’ (sorry guys, but Pete Holmes got there before you, and his take is funnier). There’s at least one awful linguistic pun that was already done to death on South Park (and doesn’t even work the way you’d pronounce the word over here). And the film quickly falls apart when it scrambles for a satisfactory resolution to the Griswolds’ troubles.
Yet some bits that don’t fly in theory work to the film’s advantage in practice. Sure, cameos abound: there’s Colin Hanks in the opening scene, there’s Key from Key and Peele, there’s yer man and yer wan from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, there’s Chris Hemsworth with an enormous… ego. But apart from one or two others, including the obligatory visit to you-know-who and mom (Beverly D’Angelo also reprises her role), they’re genuinely funny additions, if not plain in-jokes for comedy nerds, rather than done in a ‘look who’s here’ kind of way, and they lend a certain validation to what’s otherwise the very prospect of a guilty pleasure. The film is also delightfully sweary for a modern American comedy, throwing around F-bombs with aplomb; that’s matched by the razor-sharp edge to a couple of pitch-black running gags. The spirit of the ’80s hasn’t gone away completely, it seems.
But apart from all of that are the Griswolds themselves. With the personality of Homer Simpson in the body of Hank Grimes, Ed Helms makes for a much more likeable dad than the smug Chevy Chase ever did, and has a strong sparring partner in the eminently capable Applegate. Even the kids aren’t that bad: Gisondo’s hapless nerd James is a sympathetic soul, while Sebbbins’ Kevin is, well, actually he’s just a dick. In any case, they’re the relatable human element that help make Vacation a journey you don’t mind tagging along with, rather than an excruciating hellride you’re desperate to escape.