There’s a sequence near the start of Vacation, the seventh sequel to 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation – the first since Vegas Vacation in 1997 – where Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) makes a speech to his wife (Christina Applegate) about their planned family getaway being able to stand on its own against that of his own family’s adventures back in the 80s.
As you can imagine the scene, and the film, has no qualms about talking to its audience in this indirect but direct way, telling the viewer who remains sceptical about a modern-day interpretation of the concept that this will be its own thing. Yes, there’s a family, and they too are heading to Walley World in search of unity and reconnection, but rest assured that things will be different.
Different they may be, but we all know that’s not necessarily synonymous with good, funny or entertaining. Thankfully, 2015’s Vacation gets the balance just about right between callbacks and fresh ideas – the first and most important thing any movie reboot of this ilk needs to do to win its audience over.
Nothing particularly innovative is done with the premise, as Rusty realises over dinner with friends (featuring a short but notable appearance from Keegan-Michael Key) that his own family have been stuck in a rut, planning the titular holiday in order to recapture some of the same magic he experienced himself as a child.
He packs up his wife and two warring sons and embarks on an adventure fraught with mishap and catastrophe. What follows is a series of vignettes of varying quality, flitting by so fast that even the weaker ones are soon forgotten and the stronger ones only your favourite until the next one rolls around.
The emotional thrust of the film comes from Rusty and Debbie’s deteriorating marriage, the state of which is revisited at various stages of their journey. Helms and Applegate have good chemistry, which helps sell their predicament, and the characters are both developed enough to make their arguments and reconciliations interesting to watch.
It’s to its credit that the heartfelt moments of the film – and there are plenty – never feel like a distraction from the comedy. The two kids, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) are allowed to be equally multifaceted, with Gisondo in particular demonstrating a knack for this kind of material.
Somehow, Vacation manages to be incredibly crude and at times unsophisticated in its humour, but never strays into outright dumb territory. It’s always with a knowing wink that it delivers its silliness.
Some of the best gags are also cleverly set up very early on, paying off several times to increasingly amusing effect. There’s the Albanian car with mystifying controls that Rusty buys before they set off, for example, and a Duel-style trucker who appears to be following them at various points before revealing himself.
There’s also the appearance of Chris Hemsworth as Rusty’s brother-in-law, popping into the frame when the family end up at Audrey’s (Leslie Mann) house two-thirds into the running time. Hemsworth was arguably the star of the film’s trailer when it was released online, and he is indeed a highlight.
What works about Vacation is that the Griswolds come off as a normal, imperfect family who, despite not having any huge dramas to overcome, have recognisable problems that the audience can get behind in an otherwise heightened world. That, as with the original movies, is what makes it the more satisfying and entertaining watch than you’d perhaps expect.
Vacation is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it” cinema, taking a premise that worked in the past and really just presenting it to us again with different stars on screen. This can backfire, as can completely revamping a beloved franchise just to appeal to a murky, unknown audience of newcomers, but in this case it’s really just a reminder of what was so welcoming about the series at its strongest in the first place. A strongly recommended comedy.
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