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A Review of "Vacation" (2015)

The fact that I have never been a major fan of the Vacation franchise was probably to my benefit while watching the 2015 reboot / sequel.  I'm familiar enough with the source material, but none of it is sacred to me, so I have no grievances or expectations based on the original.

Which is kinda ironic, because Vacation goes so far out of its way not to step on the toes of its source material that it sometimes becomes tedious.  I can't tell whether or not I liked that it tried to pay respect to the original.


The plot is the same: the Griswold family is going on a cross-country road trip to Walley World, and hijinks ensue.  This time, the patriarch is Rusty Griswold, all grown up and played by Ed Helms.  (Chevy Chase reprises his role as Clark later on, which makes this more of a direct sequel than a remake.)  Christina Applegate plays his wife, Debbie, and their two sons, James and Kevin, are played by Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins, respectively.

(Side note: Steele Stebbins is the name of the protagonist in my new series of cop novels.)

Vacation tries hard to hit the same plot beats as the original.  The family has to drive a shitty car.  They stop off at a relative's house along the way and get into some inter-family conflict.  The car gets vandalized and they get robbed.  The car breaks down in the desert.  The parents keep trying to have sex, but get interrupted and frustrated.  Et cetera.  A lot of gag setups are recycled, but given new punchlines.

But despite being a retelling of the original - which is called attention to directly early on - Vacation insists that it's going to be its own movie.  Sometimes it is, and that's why it almost works.

The problem, I hate to say, is Ed Helms.  I like the guy's work and I think he's very talented.  He's excellent at playing the "bubbling anger hiding under a smile" archetype and has made virtually his whole career off of exactly that, and it actually makes him ideal for the role of Adult Rusty.  But Vacation wants so hard for him to channel Clark from the original that it shoots itself in the foot.

Here's the deal.  Clark Griswold was a relentlessly optimistic guy who sensed when things were going south, but who would ignore those problems for the sake of saving face.  He worked in the original movie because it was ultimately a pretty cynical story.  He was the butt of the joke - the fool who realizes that the world is laughing at his mistakes, but who refuses to admit it because he desperately wants to maintain the illusion of control.  The punchline to all of it is that he's tearing his family apart by refusing to give up.  The movie was about the superficiality of happiness.

Vacation 2015 is not a cynical movie, or at least, it doesn't want to be.  It wants to sincerely reaffirm the value of family and bonding.  If Rusty is actually as smart as Clark was, then he'd be instantly aware of how bad all his decisions are and he'd change up their vacation plans - and then you wouldn't have a movie.  So the movie's solution is to just make him a big goddamn idiot.

Which is why he doesn't work.  Almost all the comedy from Helms comes from him being a total moron, and almost all of it is cringe-inducing and frustrating.  This is how you end up with unfunny gross-out scenes where the family swims in raw sewage or embarrassment scenes where he tells his son that a rim job is a closed-mouth kiss.  (That might sound funny on paper, but it doesn't play well.)

The upside is that the rest of the cast makes up for it.  Christina Applegate is hilarious and grounds the movie with some much-needed realism.  Excluding the part where she gets drunk and tries to run an obstacle course, she gets to do a lot of great, nuanced character work.  For example, an early scene where she tries to figure out whether or not she's offended a family friend by not clicking "Like" on all her Facebook photos.

Skyler Gisondo is also really good as the older son.  His filmography looks kinda crappy so far, but I'm interested to see where he goes from here - he's got an excellent sense of timing and a good grasp of physical / reactive comedy.  Pretty much any time Ed Helms is supposed to be making you laugh, Gisondo shows him up.

There's also a terrific supporting cast made up of comic actors filling in all the bit parts, including Charlie Day, Keegan-Michael Key, Kaitlin Olson, and tons of others.  They're all great at what they do and are welcome distractions from the A-plot whenever they show up.

So what you end up with is a movie that constantly alternates between really terrible jokes and pretty good ones.  It's like somebody is standing by a joke switch and is rapidly flipping it between "Laugh" and "Awkward Silence."

I'll give this movie a marginal pass because there's enough good stuff in it that it's worth watching.  I'm just left with a sense of disappointment.  They almost made the movie about the failed pursuit of nostalgia - why not stay focused on that?  With a cast this good, you could have done something smarter and knocked it way out of the park.