What Could Go Wrong?
The infamous Griswold family first hit theaters back in 1983 — over three decades ago now — in the classic American comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation — penned by John Hughes, The Breakfast Club (1985) and directed by Harold Ramis of Caddyshack (1980) fame — which follows patriarch Clark W. Griswold (played by Chevy Chase, in the role that more-or-less shaped his respective career), as he attempts to take his wife and kids to America’s ‘favorite family fun park,’ Walley World, with the journey being, shall we say, shambolic and disastrous, giving audiences lasting memories of the calamitous voyage that befall the folks on their cross-country road trip. Attempting to reach their holiday destination, Walley World, was a hilarious hassle for Clark Griswold, his significant other, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), and their two bickering children, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron). It was also an unforgettable venture for worldwide theatergoers, with the picture becoming a major box office success — still widely regarded as both the best film in the Vacation series and the best National Lampoon offering to date — and it continues to be a cult hit, and a favorite on cable television, across the globe today. Over the subsequent years, the notorious Griswolds took audiences on several follow-up marathon treks, including a European Vacation (1985) and a Vegas Vacation (1997), heck, they even shared a Christmas Vacation (1989) with us — all winding up in chaos and catastrophe of course — in turn, etching their ill-fated misadventures into America’s cultural fabric, with the family becoming a staple on contemporary pop cinema and mainstream entertainment.
Well, guess what? Thirty-two years on and the Griswolds are back; they’re a little older, but not so much wiser, as Warner Bros. Pictures — for no good, or relevant, reason (it’s not as though today’s progressive audience was crying out to see a modern Griswold retelling) — resurrects the mothball franchise, in the hope of capitalizing on the current cinematic craze; an era overpopulated with revisionings, remakes, sequels and prequels. Taking the Vacation baton from his father, Ed Helms, The Hangover (2009), stars as Rusty Griswold — Clark’s all grown-up son — who’s determined to take his own family to the newfangled ‘bigger and better’ Walley World theme park, with the chief objective being to ride the Velociraptor — an exciting, ultra-slick rollercoaster; this gargantuan attraction contains a triple cork screw, can travel at a whopping 110 miles an hour and stands at a staggering 450 feet high. Though, in typical Griswold fashion, the hapless family winds up getting into yet another series of outrageous, uncomfortable and prickly situations along the way, as this next generation of Griswolds embark on an expedition filled with recreational mishaps and misfortunes. Alas, even sticking close to the holiday ‘bumps and blunders’ formula that defines the celebrated film series, Vacation stands as a mostly crude, perverse, forgettable and banal retread of its much finer 1983 forefather.
Starting out in Chicago, Illinois — aka, the windy city — viewers are reunited with Russell ‘Rusty’ Griswold (Ed Helms), who has matured into a modest family man; Rusty seems content with his serene suburban life, working as a pilot for a low rent airline named Econo-Air, a job that entails making an 18-minute flight, between South Bend and Chicago, each and every day. Rusty accepts this humdrum profession so that he can spend more time with his family: his beautiful wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), and their two sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin Griswold (Steele Stebbins). When Rusty senses that his better half is bored with the family’s annual summer vacation destination, spent out at a cabin in Cheboygan, Michigan — or ‘Cheboring’ as Debbie and the juniors have aptly nicknamed it — Russell decides to ‘shake things up a bit,’ in order to re-spark his ‘routine’ marriage and mend the rocky relationship he shares with his boys. In an effort to relive his own cheery childhood memories, Rusty ‘ingeniously’ decides to retrace the very route his own parents took to Walley World many years ago, hence taking his own family to the fictitious amusement park, setting off on a 2,500 mile journey to California — by car of course — renting The Tartan Prancer, or the ‘Honda of Albania,’ a wildly fictional minivan that comes with more ‘bells and whistles’ than Rusty had bargained for.
Even after a self-referential scene, which endeavors to purposely distance the current Vacation from prior Griswold outings — ‘We’re not redoing anything. This will be completely different,’ an agitated Russ assures — this new trudge curiously involves a similar blueprint akin to the 1983 original; the family zip through Missouri (check), stop over at an eccentric relatives’ house (check), get stranded and lost out in the desert (check), have awkward moments in a dilapidated hotel (check), and just for kicks, our wayfaring heroes even pass by the Grand Canyon (quintuple check). While on the road, madness and high jinks ensue because … well, the Griswold apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. And while this comedy is touted as a ‘generational gap’ sequel — to introduce contemporary audiences to the Griswold band — it still comes across as feeling more like a remake over anything else, made up of a similar set of scenarios and set pieces to its former parts. No matter, because, in between brief instances of mild humor and hit-or-miss — though mostly ‘miss’ — gags, what’s on screen isn’t very funny nor original, as Vacation, with a flaccid and lifeless script, is a rather painful experience, borrowing from its ancestors and doing very little to refresh or reinvigorate the material besides staining it with vulgarity; when they say, ‘buckle up for one wild ride,’ this is not a ride you ought to get in on.
Designing laughs that are forced — where everything seems so over-exaggerated, impractical, and highly implausible — 2015’s Vacation tries to ‘up the ante’ over all of its predecessors and fails miserably at just about every turn, delivering grossness, crassness, and tactless wit as opposed to moments of genuine comedy, which will no doubt fill fans of the old-school series with feelings of resentment and indignation; there are shameless sure-fire below-the-belt jabs at homosexuality and gender identity with no shortage of by-the-numbers genitalia cracks either. Several side characters even suffer atrocious deaths — which are played-out as ‘supposedly’ funny moments — where, in previous Griswold installments, loss of life was never a circumstance to poke fun at. A scene early on in the picture, involving a Ferrari-driving babe (Hannah Davis), whose punchline is a violent head-on collision, clearly sets the film’s ‘nasty’ tone. Writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein — in their directorial debut — really want to push the envelope here, and it certainly shows, as each lark and quip is so extreme, so in one’s face, that it will either, repulse, offend or drive away countless filmgoers. Vacation has a sequence where characters bathe in raw sewage, a scene where Russ and Debbie attempt to ‘rub off’ a penis-shaped paint job that’s been graffitied onto the passenger side of their vehicle, and there’s even a bit that sees Rusty run into a cow when trying to round up cattle, rendering it into nothing but a pool of obliterated blood and guts, which another member of the herd devours. Twisting the knife further into the wound, our group of travelers is also road-raged by an antagonistic truck driver — Norman Reedus, best recognized for playing Daryl Dixon on television’s The Walking Dead (2010) — who tacks on an additional sadistic tug to proceedings. And let’s not forget the unkempt Sleep ‘N Save Hotel, a stopover location that comes complete with soggy bloodstains on the bathroom walls, soils that appear to have come from fatal bullet wounds to the head, again used — or should I say misused — to draw laughter out of ‘un’ willing patrons. Facetious aficionados need only apply here, as nothing in Vacation is jovial or bright and breezy; the film’s jokes are mostly low-class and ill-mannered, struggling to capture that vigorous, nostalgia-glazed Griswold-esque pizzazz of the saga’s earlier, far superior, titles.
There are however a handful of jocular moments, albeit mean spirited ones, that do hit the mark, though these are few, and way too far between. A scene where the family stop over at the Grand Canyon for a Whitewater rafting expedition and plunge into a perilous jaunt through the white water torrents — accompanied by an unhinged and erratically volatile river-rafting guide, Chad, played by a riotous Charlie Day, Horrible Bosses (2011) — is a go-for-grins killer — well, that’s if you have a sick sense of humor. There’s also another fun scene that sees Russ come up with a risqué proposal, which leads to Rusty and Debbie sneaking away during the night for a spicy sexual escapade via the borderline of four connecting states, which, as luck would have it, is patrolled by over-caffeinated police officers with rivalry issues from the cornering territories: New Mexico represented by Michael Peña, Ant-Man (2015), Arizona by Kaitlin Olson, from TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005), Colorado by Nick Kroll, best known for his work on the small-screen show The League (2009), and Utah by Tim Heidecker, Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012). The outlandish free-for-all that ensues is quite amusing to say the least, though it’s very short lived. Chris Hemsworth, Thor (2011), who plays Rusty’s well-hung brother-in-law, Stone Crandall — a wealthy and vain Texas on-air television weatherman married to Rusty’s younger sister, Audrey (an underused Leslie Mann) — also stands out as one of the film’s few amusing characters, as Crandall’s charm, natural perfection and obviously outward sexual behavior/sensual actions towards Debbie graft tension into Rusty’s already rickety wedlock, offering up several awkward, yet epicly endowed ‘distractions;’ think Mark Wahlberg’s underwear sequence in 1997’s Boogie Nights. But don’t let me oversell it, as Vacation is far from being the outright hoot it could have been.
As far as performances go, the frivolous and always affable Ed Helms does a decent job in taking up the Griswold mantle, playing the middle-aged Russel ‘Rusty’ Griswold. Ensuring his family has ‘fun’ in the face of ridiculous odds, Helms imbues the character with Clark’s persistent positive outlook and endearing optimism; though Rusty has his own set of winning qualities too, including a real innocence and naivety as a father, which Helms smilingly takes on with an earnest sense of gusto — he is a little lighter than his father too, and doesn’t veer into the often ‘dark’ places Clark might have gone. Co-starring as Helm’s on-screen missus, Christina Applegate, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) — who’s mostly wasted bar a projectile-vomit moment during a round of drunken sorority games — instils a somewhat dynamic attitude to Debbie Griswold; from her concealed college wild-child persona, pre-dating her courtship with Rusty, to her innate beauty as a woman — who’s a little out of Rusty’s league — and intrinsic qualities as a loving mother, Applegate really ‘brings it,’ but ultimately isn’t given enough screen time to shine. The Griswold lads, cruel pint-sized bully Kevin, played by an extremely unlikable Steele Stebbins, A Haunted House 2 (2014), and his sensitive older bro, the dull and dreary guitar-strumming James, played by relative newcomer Skyler Gisondo, are extremely forgettable and hardly stand out, doing a whole lot of ‘zilch’ to liven up their ham-fisted roles. Thankfully, in what seems to be a post-production afterthought, a frightfully bloated Chevy Chase and ex-bombshell Beverly D’Angelo — remarkably still glowing at age 63 — make a welcome cameo, reprising their roles as the legendary on-screen duo of Clark and Ellen Griswold, who are now running a bed-and-breakfast service in San Francisco; surprisingly, the duo do add a pinch of authenticity to an otherwise clumsy stab at ‘continuing’ the holiday caper franchise.
‘What could go wrong?’ asks the tagline of Warner Bros.’ latest comedy. Clearly, plenty’s gone askew in this humorless and patchy overhaul, as Vacation is somewhat of a vicious nose-dive, an unfunny and unmemorable affair, that’s only enjoyable provided one goes into the flick with the lowest of expectations. Truth be told, I wasn’t overly keen, nor optimistic, when walking into Vacation … and was still left displeased, as the film pretty much wastes its able cast and squanders any satisfaction filmmakers could have squeezed out of the fun plotline. In any case, some thirty years later and Lindsey Buckingham’s boppy ‘Holiday Road’ is at least still played as part of Vacation’s eclectic soundtrack; speaking of which, Seal’s 1994 hit, ‘Kiss from a Rose’ replaces James Taylor and Carly Simon’s ‘Mockingbird,’ which Russ tirelessly tries to get his exasperated family to sing along to, much like Clark and Ellen’s attempts at getting the kids to belt out the ‘Mockingbird’ tune back in 1983. Upon exiting the screening, I was left with one lasting impression, a reminder that I still hold a soft spot for Seal’s knockout single, ‘Kiss from a Rose.’
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by S-Littner
Vacation is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia