Though the set-ups take forever and Ed Helms’s performance is just plain irritating, there’s enough humanity in this vehicle to make us care as it drives American family values into a brick wall — with Griswold results
Starring: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo
Directed by: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein
Running time: 99 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
This could have gone so wrong. I mean, think about it. National Lampoon’s 1983 Vacation pushed vulgar into the avant-garde by strapping American family values into the station wagon of a road movie, then driving it straight into a brick wall of bad taste and drug-tinged subversion.
The results were raunchy, but explosively comic: a version of Roadrunner with Chevy Chase playing Wile E. Coyote holding the black bomb with a burning fuse. The movie was nasty to Granny, and about as cruel to the family pet as a Romney family road trip.
It was also sexist, because it sprang from the clammy shallows of National Lampoon – the now-defunct humor magazine spawned by Harvard alums looking to push buttons, and no doubt get lucky.
It was Animal House as family drama, and even though it was largely mediocre and prone to long bouts of boredom, it scratched its initials on the bathroom wall of pop culture because it did rewrite the Father Knows Best patriarchal stereotype as it made the average American dad look like a complete boob.
Chevy Chase was no Fred MacMurray or Robert Young or Andy Griffith, and in the 1980s, his inability to play competent family leader reflected the larger political picture. In the script penned by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, it wasn’t just dad who was asleep at the wheel with his entire family in the Ford, the entire nation seemed to be drifting onto the shoulder as Ronald Reagan deregulated and gave everyone the right to drive wherever they pleased.
In this new Vacation, freed from its ‘National Lampoon’ provenance, writers John Francis Daley (Bones) and Jonathan M. Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) try to create a similarly volatile mix of satire and slapstick, and while much of this new reel feels painfully forced, there’s just enough humanity in the tank to reach its destination.
Certainly, if this vehicle were fuelled on funny alone, it would be stranded on the Interstate after the first few scenes showing the next generation of Griswolds suffering through their own crises.
Rusty (Ed Helms) is a pilot who works for a low-budget airline, and while the rest of the pilots make fun of him and his beige flight suit, he doesn’t mind because he’s got a beautiful wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and two sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) waiting for him at home.
But even under his own roof, Rusty doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Debbie is distraught over another trip to “Boring Sheboygan” and the boys are constantly squabbling. He needs to take action, and this movie needs to retrace the Griswold route, so after a whole scene of self-referential jokes about “this vacation” vs. “the original vacation,” we end up back in the wagon on the way to Wally World.
Because the opening scenes are so flat and because Rusty is such an unlikable loser, the very idea of spending another hour with the Griswolds is close to nauseating. Yet, something happens along the way that could very well win you over.
Sure, we get the predictable scenes of mom visiting to her old university and getting all beer-bitchy, as well as some disastrous flirting among the young folk, but instead of the carousel of boobs, this movie uses Chris Hemsworth’s Aussie sausage for cheesy sizzle.
In fact, Hemsworth is probably the most subversive thing in the film because he’s playing the role of blond weather-girl bimbo, but as a bimbo man. The actor is clearly having a good time, even if it is the prosthetics talking, but it makes room for more gender reversals, from mom being the sexual expert to dad being a prude.
At one point, the Griswolds decide to make love at the four corners monument, prompting four different state troopers to appear. The setup takes forever, but the four cops arguing over jurisdiction is one of the stronger scenes in the film.
It’s the same for the rest of the movie. The set-ups are laborious and stupid and largely untenable, but the actors bring just enough emotion to the frame to make us care. Applegate is fantastic, and nothing short of inspiring as she bridges the gap between hot mama and mama bear, and the two kids are solid. It’s Helms who presents the bigger challenge to the viewer because he’s playing the same character he always plays: the insecure but lovable putz.
It’s a character type that gets old fast, and Helms doesn’t do anything to help his cause by rolling his eyes in exasperation. But he needs to be here because without a disappointing paternal character desperate to prove himself, it wouldn’t be a reflection of the American nuclear family – and it wouldn’t be a Vacation.