Film Review: VACATION
Starring Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Steele Stebbins, Sklyer Gisondo, Leslie Mann, Chris Hemsworth, Catherine Missal, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo
Directed and written by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Produced by David Dobkin, Chris Bender
Music by Mark Mothersbough
Cinematography by Barry Peterson
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On July 29, 1983, exactly thirty-two years ago from the scheduled release date of July 29, 2015, for the thoroughly forgettable, disappointing and embarrassing “Vacation” film, a classic film comedy, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” was released—-and that 1983 film is so worlds and miles and journeys apart and separate and different from “Vacation,” those differences on just about every filmic level represent yet another lesson in the continuing saga of Hollywood’s horrible and desperate dependence on crappy re-boots, re-imaginings, re-visits, re-makes, re-hashes, sequels and prequels.
“Vacation” is uninspired, unoriginal, a simple rehash, lame, unfunny, and moronically, horribly and depressingly crude, crass and a mess of bottom-feeding, gutter-residing dumbness—but not funny or entertaining dumbness. There’s also an underlying cruelty, negativity and downer atmosphere that doesn’t quite lift the spirits. Finally, there’s a bizarre (but not in a funny way), cringe-inducing (not in a funny way) and overall disturbing (not in a funny way at all) reliance on jokes about sexuality involving people under eighteen, which isn’t really welcome, appropriate, funny, entertaining or needed in the movie. And that’s not being prudish or squeaky clean—the jokes simply don’t work, are simply not presented well, and are designed to shock but end up being shock-less due to their amateurish presentation. Yes, the original had one such joke—but that was it, and in that particular movie, it was funny in the overall context of that film, and it was funny due to the manner in which it was used and presented. In the new “Vacation,” none of the cringe-inducing jokes work amid the overall crude, crass and negative environment.
“National Lampoon’s Vacation” was simply a thoroughly funny, fun, entertaining and enjoyable parody and satire—and, in an underlying loving way—ode to the Great American Road Trip Summer Vacation. The film benefitted in its funniness and genuine overall good humor—good humor that somehow overrode darker circumstances that were played for lightness (a dead aunt, a dead dog, loss of money, marital problems, internal family fighting, for instance), with a continual feeling that, again, somehow, everything would turn out okay in the end. In that film, filmgoers were able to laugh at, laugh with, and even like and sympathize with the lead characters, a typical harried, consumer-driven suburban American nuclear family that simply wants to travel half-way across the United States and see the sights, even if the eventual end destination is a humongous theme park called Walley World, patterned not so subtlely after Walt Disney’s Disneyland and Walt Disney World amusement parks.
Presenting the lead characters as hapless, awkward, stumbling, bumbling—but still lovable and, most important, still likeable—typical family members who just want to bond, love, have fun and ride some incredible rides after seeing the sights across the country, director Harold Ramis, writer John Hughes and lead actors Chevy Chase, as Clark Griswold, Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen Griswold, Anthony Michael Hall as Rusty Griswold and Dana Barron as Audrey Griswold presented a scenario that most people could relate to, appreciate, laugh at and enjoy, due to most American’s similar experiences on such summer vacation road trips.
But most important for that film, quite simply, is that it was funny from start to finish; the acting was just funny enough but not overly broad to escape the basic premise; the writing was clever and funny, and the situations large and small were inventive and hilarious; the scenery across the country was impressive; and the underlying themes of a father just wanting to please his family despite everything going wrong and protests from fellow family members, was actually touching and relatable. Add an impressive array of funny supporting and cameo appearances from such stellar comedic actors as Randy Quaid, Imogene Coca, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Miriam Flynn, Eddie Bracken, Brian Doyle Murray, Frank McRae, Mickey Jones, a young Jane Krakowski and a stunning Christie Brinkley, and you have simply a thoroughly funny, enjoyable film comedy.
“Vacation,” however, has very little of all of the above.
This vacation was indeed a mistake, not only by the Griswolds in the context of the film, but by everyone involved in the making of the film, from the moronic studio suits who thought this was a good idea to the co-directors and co-writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who deserve most of the blame for this misguided mess.
Possibly, there didn’t need to be any more “Vacation” films after Ramis’ and Hughes’ 1983 film. The subsequent sequels were arguably, generally, average to slightly above-average (but only slightly) and unneeded. “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” in 1985, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in 1989 and “Vegas Vacation” in 1997 were all a bit of a stretch and could have been left alone as ideas on paper, or, possibly, even better presented as more short stories from Hughes, as the 1983 original was based on a National Lampoon comedic story by Hughes called “Vacation ’58.”
And 2015’s “Vacation” did not need to be made at all.
In “Vacation,” the story jump-starts a couple of decades later, and now Clark and Ellen’s son, Rusty (good sport Ed Helms), an airline pilot, is firmly set in Chicago suburban middle-ageness, with his own beautiful wife, Debbie (good sport Christina Applegate), two cute kids (Kevin, played by good sport Steele Stebbins, and James, played by good sport Skyler Gisondo), a decent job, a nice car in the garage, and a nice house on a nice street with nice suburban neighbors. All seems well and good for this latter generation of our beloved Griswolds.
But suddenly, everything is new and old again—and overly familiar. The family’s in a rut, there are underlying marital and sibling problems, and Rusty suggests a renewed cross-country trek once again to Walley World—before the theme park closes for good. The family protests, Rusty insists, they eventually agree, a questionable and goofball car is secured for the trip (yes, again), and before the director can say “cut” and “next scene,” the family’s quite suddenly in the car, on the road, and off to Walley World in California. Seem familiar? That may seem okay, at first, because some may think—at first–that the nostalgia trip headed by Rusty to re-live his own youthful adventures with his own family could be a good, fun premise with its own modern-day trials and tribulations.
Alas, that initial promise of possibly new, inventive situations encountered across the country is simply not fulfilled in a sustained inventive, clever, insightful, original or, perhaps most important, funny or entertaining way in “Vacation.” What follows once the family leaves the driveway in safe, suburban Chicago is simply an hour and a half of mostly dark, depressing situations that, again, rely far too heavily on either re-hashed situations, themes and conversations, but also an over-reliance on humor that is too focused on body parts, bodily functions, cussing, weird sexuality, awkwardness, cringe-inducing situations and, again, just plain crudeness, crassness and grossness.
For instance, one scene plays for laughs the new weird family vacation rental car flipping over several times in a crash on a highway—with the family members, including two young boys—inside. Is a car flipping over several times with four people inside funny? Not in this case, or in most cases. Another scene depends on Applegate’s Debbie vomiting—continually—at a sorority beer guzzling bash for laughs. With the kids watching Mom vomiting and chugging a pitcher of beer. That’s not funny. Another scene plays for laughs the younger kid, Kevin—who seems to be about 10 or 11 years old—cussing, asking questions about sex, slapping his older brother, and throwing a plastic bag over his older brother’s face in an effort to suffocate, or near-suffocate, him. None of this is really that funny. And, seemingly, every other word for long stretches is the s-word or the f-word. That’s not funny, either. And the family goes for a swim in a dumping ground of raw sewage, complete with a dirty needle—that Kevin, the younger kid, picks up and throws at his older brother, James, who appears to be in his mid-teens. And a whitewater rafting guide gives up on a river ride, places the family in danger and plummets over a waterfall in an apparent suicide attempt. Again, not really funny.
All of this is played for broad laughs, and the scenes may get some laughs—at first—but it’s the type of crass, juvenile humor that isn’t presented well, in terms of set-up, context, pacing, timing or comedic presentation, and it all makes the viewer want to run home, take a quick shower, and kiss and hug your family in deep appreciation that you are not the Griswolds in “Vacation.” It’s also the type of humor that you wonder about in terms of who, exactly, thought that was funny in the first place and how it made its way into a big-budget Hollywood feature.
An over-riding problem here is that Daley and Goldstein are not Ramis and Hughes—on any level. Where Ramis and Hughes somehow kept a positive heart and sense of love riding over the darker scenes in the original film, in “Vacation,” Daley and Goldstein try desperately to do the same thing—with talk about how Rusty just wants to please his family because he truly loves them—but this time around, without the comedic writing, timing, pacing, presentation and skills and talents of Ramis and Hughes, it all seems forced, copied, unoriginal, desperate, and, generally, a replay of the original film’s jokes, gags, themes and messages.
Daley and Goldstein should have told an entirely different type of story–without the crudeness, crassness and grossness. Some type of road adventure that stops and parodies road trip sidelights—perhaps a satire of truly out-of-the-way tourist traps, gift shops, small towns, tackiness, eccentric people and more off-the-cuff tourist destinations, with a focus on the variety of real-life oddness that exists just off the highways and biways—could have made a far better, far more inventive and original film.
However, “Vacation” is, in the end, just more of the same—from thirty-two years ago.
Interestingly, the blame can’t be placed this time on the four major actors, all of whom are good sports in their roles because they actually do the best that they can with their unoriginal, loosely-constructed characters. Helms, Applegate, Stebbins and Gisondo all are indeed funny, look great, have great presence, have a natural chemistry with each other, which is welcome and refreshing, and all four are indeed fun to watch and spend time with. Stebbins and Gisondo do well as kid actors—Stebbins is cute and likable despite his character’s oddities, and Gisondo does well as a sensitive teen with a crush on a girl he keeps running into on the road trip. However, again, the crass script keeps giving the characters terrible scenarios that bring all hopes of promise straight down into the muck and slime.
The problems with the film do not rest with the actual performances of Helms, Applegate, Stebbins or Gisondo. The problems rest in the script, writing and direction and the crudeness that the directors/writers throw at their actors and characters. As for the varied, sprinkled cameos that pop up through the film, well, alas, none can match the stellar line-up from the original film, and none—even Chris Hemsworth’s character and scenes, which will be talked about—genuinely shine or stand out in an above-average manner.
Yes, Rusty and family eventually arrive at the West Coast and pop in for a brief visit with Clark and Ellen, who are now, of all things, running a bed-and-breakfast inn in San Francisco, which is a nice little touch—a rare nice touch in this movie. Alas, the scene with Beverly D’Angelo and Chevy Chase, just like everything else in this crappy, crude, crass wholly embarrassing disappointment of a movie, is a huge, unfunny let-down. Chase and D’Angelo just aren’t that funny, and there’s really not much humor or depth to their appearances, which, in better writing and directing hands, could have been a greatly fulfilling sequence. However, it all falls flat.
Even the eventual appearance at Walley World is a huge let-down: The family makes it to the park, the park is indeed open, the family gets to the location of the one big coveted ride—and then they have to wait four hours to get on the ride, and when they do get on the ride, it soon stalls, upsidedown, and the family has to be rescued. In “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” even though Clark briefly loses his mind, the family eventually gets to ride the rides, and they have their fun, which is a nice sequence of fulfillment at the end.
In “Vacation,” there is no fulfillment at the end—and no real fulfillment at the beginning or middle, either.
There is a comment in “Vacation” that sometimes, the journey may be a disappointment, but the destination is the real payoff. Well, in “Vacation, neither the journey nor the destination pays off. “Vacation” ends up being—yes, once again—another failed, desperate Hollywood re-make/re-boot/re-hash/re-imagining/re-vist/sequel/prequel/whatever. Again.
Perhaps the best analysis of all of this came from a bright 13-year-old from Bethesda who said this after leaving an advance screening of “Vacation:” “I guess ‘European Vacation 2’ is next.”
Please, for all that is movie holy, dear gods of Hollywood, gods of the studio that owns the rights to the “Vacation” brand, and all of the filmmaking gods: No more “Vacation” movies. It’s time for the “Vacation” movie series to take a permanent vacation.