What It’s About
My affection for the Griswolds runs deep. In my family, the “Vacation” movies are more documentary than comedy. I enjoy these characters we’ve come to know in four movies the past 32 years. They continue to make me laugh in the latest road trip adventure, although it’s a bumpier ride this time.
The new movie is an update, a re-purposing of the brand with a grown-up Rusty (Ed Helms) as the main story. It’s like welcoming back relatives at a family reunion. It’s good to see these characters created by John Hughes return to the silver screen.
But as the first family of low-brow comedy, they do put the “fun” in dysfunctional. You expect a journey won’t be smooth sailing with the Griswolds’ penchant for calamities and mishaps. It’s as if Murphy’s Law was written specifically with them in mind.
Rusty, now a pilot for a commuter airline, decides his family is in a rut, so decides a return trip to Walley World is just the ticket to fix the fractures. So he packs up his lovely wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), who is a wee bit apprehensive about taking their two opposite sons — little hellion Kevin (Steele Stebbins) and sensitive oldest son James (Skyler Gisondo) in an Albanian minivan, hilariously called the Tartan Prancer. It’s a comic goldmine.
If you saw the 1983 “Vacation,” you know a rocky road lies ahead between Chicago and California. This version liberally pays homage to the Harold Ramis-John Hughes classic under the auspices of National Lampoon, a major force in comedy back then. Only this time, the modern trend towards gross-out humor, raunchy situations and foul language takes precedence. Is it really necessary to sell tickets?
But the cast is game, the joys of the open road are apparent — and so is the tedious drudgery of a very long trek — and detours yield surprises. You know how after a less-than-perfect journey, you tend to forget the hassles and just remember the joys of getting away? It’s like that.
The best feature is the cadre of supporting actors and cameos sprinkled throughout the story, co-written by directors John Frances Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (writers of “Horrible Bosses” and the sequel). Comic actors Charlie Day and Keegan-Michael Key, are used well, as are brief appearances by Ron Livingston and Michael Pena. I’m not going to spoil the guest star parade.
However, Chris Hemsworth (“The Avengers”) is hilarious as the hunky weatherman Stone Crandall, husband of Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann). He’s a larger-than-life, swaggering Texan, who can one up Rusty in every way. Kudos to Hemsworth for showing he has a flair for comedy, capably demonstrated on “Saturday Night Live,” and can mock his “Sexiest Man Alive” persona.
Anchoring the film is the steady Ed Helms (“The Hangover”), who plays Rusty as a chip off the old block. He often reminds you of his father Clark (Chevy Chase), and that’s intentional, you root for Rusty to overcome the humiliations that befall him because he is a good soul and tries very hard to head an all-American family, much like Chase did in creating such an iconic character.
This movie focuses on him as a lovable loser, and how his close relationships need mending. Applegate (“Married, with Children”), throws herself in the role. A stop at her college town goes awry when her “Girl Gone Wild” past is revealed —and drunken vomiting ensues. We could have skipped this. So that complicates matters.
And then there’s the bickering brothers. The boys are a good contrast, but the youngest is not just mean but perhaps in need of therapy as a future sociopath.
Of course no “Vacation” movie is complete without the elder Griswolds showing up, and this time they run a B&B in San Francisco. Beverly D’Angelo’s plastic surgery has altered her face to such an extent that she doesn’t seem like the same Ellen. But they used to have different kids in all the movies.
“Vacation” works best as a memory lane, and there are clever touches — a big-rig trucker scare a la “Duel” stands out.
But if this is rebooting the franchise, we need to have stronger material and less reliance on cheap tricks. I know vulgarity sells tickets, but it’s unnecessary here.
And I miss Cousin Eddie.
3 stars out of 4
Directors: John Frances Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein
Starring: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo
Rated: Rated R for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity.