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Vacation (2015)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Should Have Stayed In Vegas"
1 stars

The original "National Lampoon's Vacation" is a film that may not quite be the comedy classic that some of its proponents deem it to be--it is awfully uneven at times, the ending (which was a last-second replacement when the original finale tested badly with preview audiences--this ending was later repurposed into the climax of "Christmas Vacation") is curiously unsatisfying and some of the bad taste humor has not exactly stood the test of time. (Even director Harold Ramis admitted that the absurdly racist detour to East St. Louis was too much and that he might have reworked or deleted it entirely if he had the opportunity to do it again.) However, it is still a very funny film--certainly better than such dire followups as the execrable "European Vacation" and the all-but-forgotten "Vegas Vacation" (I am not that much of a fan of "Christmas Vacation either but since it has been duly enshrined as a holiday classic, I am willing to give it a pass)--and there are any number of reasons why it is so beloved. For one it marked one of the few times during his reign as one of Hollywood's top stars where Chevy Chase actually committed to playing a character (as he also did in "Fletch" and the sadly little-seen "Funny Farm") instead of just coasting through as a quip machine. For another, the sight of Christie Brinkley in her underwear--although not exactly essential to the narrative--was certainly a memorable sight for any and all 12-year-old boys at the time.

The real reason that the film continues to resonate with viewers more than three decades after its debut, however, is that the comedic concepts that Ramis and screenwriter John Hughes put into play were ones that virtually any viewers could relate to on an intensely personal level. Who among us has not gone on a family trip where not everything went according to plan? Who among us has not endured the exquisite misery of being stuck in the back seat with a sibling who won't stay on his side of the car or who makes sure to point out to you, who hasn't looked out the window for a while due to being engrossed in a book, that we have reached the apex of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge despite knowing full well that I am terrified of bridges? (Okay--that one may be a little specific.) Who hasn't built their hopes and dreams on traveling thousands of miles to a destination that turned out to not be all that it was cracked up to be? It was those moments of intense recognition that made the original "Vacation" so memorable and it is those that are most sorely missed in the new "Vacation," a generally unpleasant and largely unfunny waste of time and talent that replaces them with desperate stabs at gross-out humor that make one long for the comparative wit and whimsy of "Vegas Vacation" or "Funny Games."

This time around, the focus is the now-adult Rusty (Ed Helms), who works as a pilot for a run-down commuter airline (cue the wacky joke about the senile co-pilot who nearly kills everyone) and who has his own family, consisting of long-suffering wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), overly sensitive older son James (Skyler Gisondo) and bullying brat younger son Kevin (Steele Stebbins). Yearning to bring his brood together and nostalgic for his own trips of yore (while forgetting all the chaos that occurred during them--perfectly understandable when you consider how many times he changed his look and age over the course of those misadventures), he decides that they are going to go on a family vacation--not only that, they are going to recreate the best vacation of his youth by renting a car and driving from Chicago to California to visit the fabled Wally World and ride their latest roller-coaster, the Velociraptor. The others are not particularly enthused by the idea but soon they are behind the wheel of their wacky rented Albanian minivan (complete with indecipherable instructions) and they are off.

In news that will no doubt come as a shock, the trip is pretty much a disaster from start to finish. A detour to visit Debbie's alma mater in Memphis allows her to play a drunken sorority game and projectile vomit her body weight in beer. A visit to what they think is a remote mineral spring goes badly when they realize that they have been swimming in, spitting out and smearing themselves with raw sewage. In Texas, they visit Rusty's sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her husband, a well-hung and arch-conservative weatherman (Chris Hemsworth) with a bull whose fate is essentially sealed the moment he announces how much it is worth. An attempt by Rusty and Debbie to get a little private time in a familiar tourist trap goes badly and James has similar luck with a girl (Catherine Missal) he keeps encountering along the way thanks to his dad and brother. A rafting trip with Charlie Day at the helm goes even worse than might be expected from being trapped in a raft with Charlie Day. Oh yeah, they also spend most of their trip being pursued by an apparently malevolent trucker after the brat insults him over a CB--a running gag that goes on for so long and with so little payoff that it is stunning that anyone could have thought at any point that it was amusing.

"Vacation" was written and directed by John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein, whose previous efforts include the screenplay for "Horrible Bosses," another comedy that wasn't especially amusing but which comes across as a work of genius when compared to this one. Both on the page and behind the camera, they never find the right tone for the proceedings and instead of trying to capture that universal tone of frustration that the original film managed to successfully mine, they just take jokes from that film and replace the relatable aspects with over-the-top stupidity and cruelty towards the characters and those stuck watching them. In the first film, for example, watching Chevy Chase eating a sandwich that a dog had urinated on was funny because it was a gross joke that was nevertheless within the realm of possibility. Watching Rusty and the gang smearing themselves in excrement when one would think that the smell alone would serve as adequate warning, on the other hand, makes them look like morons. Likewise, when the pet dog was accidentally killed in the original, it still managed to inspire a laugh because the circumstances were entirely plausible. Here, when the bull gets killed, it isn't funny because 1.) the setup is long, labored and not very funny and 2.) the payoff is more stomach-churning than side-splitting. Even the running gag from the first one involving Christie Brinkley occasionally popping up on the highway as a vision behind the wheel of a Ferrari to tempt Clark gets an unpleasant shoutout as yet another supermodel (Hannah Davis this time) pulls alongside in yet another Ferrari, only to be run over by a truck.

An even bigger problem than the jokes coming across as ugly misfires is the undeniable fact that the Griswold paterfamilias this time around is neither likable nor amusing. For example, in the pasty, Rusty always came across as a kid who was maybe a little naive in certain aspects but who was otherwise reasonably smart and on the ball despite all the casting changes over the years. (Actually, these changes inspire the single funniest visual gag in the entire film). Here, he comes across as little more than a clueless idiot who seems to be going out of his way to make himself look dumb and creepy--there is nothing inherently wrong with his efforts to serve as an unwanted "wingman" for his son in theory but when his every line has been carefully constructed to make him sound like a gay child predator, the laughs die on the vine. Chase may have been a bumbler but he didn't seem to be going out of his way to fail, which is what Rusty does here. Actually, the screenplay cannot decide for itself whether Rusty is naive, a moron or both--there is a long and pointless joke in which he cluelessly makes up a wildly incorrect explanation of what a rim job is (don't ask why) but is perfectly prepared to explain the function of a glory hole to his younger son. Not to nitpick but if he knows what one is, he damn well knows what the other is. Because of this, when Rusty does have his brief moments of triumph, they fall flat because we simply don't care about him or them.

As for the performers, they are too busy flailing about in the muck to be able to generate much in the way of laughs. While I was relieved that Ed Helms did not elect to simply do a Chevy Chase impression throughout as Rusty, I was somewhat less heartened to discover that all he is doing instead is yet another riff on the clueless squares that he played in "The Office" and the "Hangover" films. That said, this is better than is afforded to Christina Applegate--despite being a gifted and underrated comedienne from as far back as the days of "Married with Children," she has virtually nothing to do here other than get smacked around and throw up during her one big scene at the sorority house. The actors playing the two kids are such spectacularly unlikable nonentities that I began hoping that the film would get especially meta and just replace them halfway through without any explanation. A bunch of familiar faces pop up along the way but the only one that makes any real impression is the late-inning appearance by the one and only Chevy Chase. On the one hand, the sequence as a whole is pretty bad--it has the tacked-on feel of a last-second addition (which could not possibly have been the case, could it?) and Chase looks so bloated that it as if he were accidentally made up for an appearance in the sequel to "Nothing but Trouble" that no one asked for besides me (Beverly D'Angelo turns up as well during this part and she does look fabulous). On the other hand, the guy still has enough of his once-legendary crack comic timing to help sell substandard material and he has a bit with a spray bottle that inspires one of the few genuinely amusing moments to be had despite the lack of people swimming in fecal matter.

"Vacation" is a mean, ugly and stridently unpleasant comedy that is as sad and dispiriting as any movie that you will see anytime soon that is theoretically supposed to make you laugh. Not only does this fail in every possible way to compare with "National Lampoon's Vacation" and its sequels (yes, it is even worse than "European Vacation") but it would be on seriously shaky ground in comparison to the vast majority of the crummy crapfests that National Lampoon slapped its name onto in exchange for a fee over the last couple of decades. I understand why it was made--the brand is familiar and the notion of a new "Vacation" movie has been discussed for so long now that it probably became a fait accompli at some point. What I do not and cannot understand is how anyone involved with this film's production in any capacity could have convinced themselves for even a moment that there was anything of value to be had here, either as a standalone film or as a continuation of a famed franchise. If you are driving by your local theater and you see this playing (and that should only be for a couple of weeks, I am guessing), I can offer only one brief but pithy bit of advice--"Roll 'em up!"

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28027&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/28/15 12:05:45
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User Comments

12/08/15 The Big D Lots of dirty language but not funny--it's a flop! 1 stars
11/14/15 mr.mike It was dreadful. 1 stars
7/30/15 Bob Dog I guess slapstick is out of fashion, I found Vacation to be a solid little comedy! 4 stars
7/28/15 Jack Great review Peter. This remake is a cash grab, mean spirited, piece of garbage. 1 stars
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