VACATION Movie Review – Egregious, Excremental, Execrable
It’s a sequel. It’s a remake. It’s a se-make? A re-quel? Whatever the latest in the long-running, semi-rebooted Vacation series (the “National Lampoon” preface disappeared long, long ago), it certainly ranks among the worst, repeatedly subjecting a supposedly willing audience to fecal/excremental humor (the laziest humor possible), bodily fluid jokes (hello projectile vomiting), and a constant, seemingly never-ending series of humiliations foisted upon the series’ returning character, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms), a fully grown adult male with the usual assortment of boundary issues, communication challenges (he’s super-dim), and an unerring ability to put himself and his family into humiliating, compromising situations. In point of fact, whenever Vacation isn’t relying on lowest-common-denominator humor of the excremental kind, it’s punishing the Griswold clan, presumably for audience amusement.
As with anything comedy-related (comedy being the most subjective of genres possible), your mileage may vary. You might get a kick, maybe even an assortment of kicks, from watching Rusty, his stay-at-home-wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and their two kids, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins), make their way across the byways, freeways, and highways of these United States (Chicago to California) for a road trip that could double as one or more of Dante’s Circles of Hell. As a grown up, Rusty has inherited his father’s all-around geniality, goofiness, and cluelessness. When he decides to take his family on an impromptu vacation, it’s not to Paris (Debbie’s desire) or anywhere James or Kevin would like to go (they don’t get a say), but to Wally World, the same Wally World that Rusty visited as a child with his other biological family. In addition to Rusty’s other failings as a father and husband, he seems to suffer from amnesia, purposeful or unintentional (likely the former, otherwise Vacation‘s already shambling, sketch-based plot would be nonexistent).
With Rusty at the helm of a Tartan Prancer, a foreign-made mini-van, the Griswolds’ encounter all sorts of depravations and depredations, including the heavily advertised plunge into a hot springs that’s really a raw sewage runoff. That only happens, however, after a stop at Debbie’s former alma mater, Memphis State College (or University or whatever), where Rusty learns about Debbie’s party-hard past. In one of Vacation‘s segues into 21st-century, cultural enlightenment, Rusty isn’t turned off by Debbie’s heretofore unknown past, but quite the opposite. It also spurs Rusty to take more risks and become more adventurous in the sex department. That segue, however, gives way to the aforementioned encounter with the sewage-filled hot springs and a pit stop in Reactionary Stereotypes, Texas, for a visit with Rusty’s sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann), and her right-wing, super-buff local weatherman/rancher, Stone Crandall (a game Chris Hemsworth). Vacation doesn’t get more sophisticated than Stone’s underwear-only narcissistic preening, ostensibly to show off his package.
The long, meandering journey makes time for the eldest Griswold son, depicted here as an all-around doofus like his father, but minus his father’s beta male masculinity, to be repeatedly bullied by his obnoxious younger brother. It’s a funny once, funny maybe twice joke that like so much in Vacation, gets too much play in John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein‘s (Horrible Bosses) screenplay (they also directed). By the fifth or sixth time, it’s time to put the joke to bed and move on to something fresh and novel. Unfortunately, fresh and novel isn’t in Daley and Goldstein’s vocabulary, at least not if Vacation is any indication. To be fair, a side trip to the Grand Canyon results in an inspired bit involving the four-states site (four states, four cops, four different jurisdictions) and a rafting guide, Chad (Charlie Day), having one of the worst days of his adult life.
From there, however, it’s one stale, tired, desperate joke after another. Even with the benefit of a spine or structure (i.e., road trip) and callbacks to earlier, superior entries in the series (especially the first one), Daley and Goldstein seem incapable of doing anything with the Griswolds except put them through one cringe-inducing humiliation after another for our general amusement. Given the relatively poor job they do of elevating the Griswolds beyond mere caricatures, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that neither the journey nor the eventual destination proves to be particularly memorable, let alone funny except sporadically. Intentionally or not, a non-functioning rollercoaster, introduced late in the film, proves to be apt visual metaphor for Vacation and its seemingly endless comedic shortcomings.