“Crass equals funny” usually isn’t my speed. So imagine my surprise at finding out I actually enjoyed Vacation, a sequel/reboot/remake that’s fifth in a series that long ago dropped the “National Lampoon’s” from the front of its brand. Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold, son of Chevy Chase’s original Clark Griswold, who is now all grown up with a family of his own: wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and sons James (Skylar Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). With Rusty’s job as a pilot for a small regional airline making him feel as if he and his family are not spending enough time together, he decides they’re going to drive cross-country to — you guessed it — Walley World, the amusement park goal of the original movie.
The family itself is typically dysfunctional: former college party girl Debbie yearns for a new adventure while the younger Kevin relentlessly and almost psychopathically bullies his sensitive older brother. A long drive together to a relic of Rusty’s youth isn’t exactly what any of them want right now – save for the endlessly optimistic Rusty himself, who finds his stamina and repository of good cheer challenged by what the road holds in store for the Griswolds.
The original Vacation, written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, was consideredly fairly nasty for its time: the fates of Aunt Edna and her dog come to mind, as well as Chase’s own bent performance. But that was 32 years ago, and comedic sensibilities have either progressed or devolved, depending on your point of view, so Vacation is very much a modern comedy – which means that much of its humor is scatological and/or politically incorrect. The movie just skates on the thin line when it comes to homophobia (never crossing it like Get Hard) but tramples right over it when it comes to human waste and projectile vomiting.
And yet, we kept laughing all the way through the movie’s nice, tight 99-minute running time (pay attention, Judd “two-hours-plus” Apatow), mostly due to writers and co-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s commitment to the material, and the solid efforts of the entire cast. Helms is perfect as the harried everyman wanting to reconnect with his family (and he even has a nice moment of truth near the end of the film that gives his character just a little more depth), while Applegate – one of our most underrated comediennes – quite possibly steals the movie with the sequence in which the family stops by her alma mater and she briefly attempts to recapture some of her former youthful glory at a sorority party (it doesn’t work out).
And then there are the cameos. Chris Hemsworth’s presence as the Griswolds’ brother-in-law (married to sister Leslie Mann) has been used already to sell the picture, and while his accent is terrible, it is a total blast to see Thor wield a hammer of a different sort in front of a humbled Helms and a stunned Applegate. Charlie Day has a great moment too (with help from a terrific music cue), and there’s a third surprise appearance that had me laugh out loud at its payoff even as I was fully aware that this was a pedophilia joke that was cracking me up. Unfortunately, a late stopover to see Clark and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) fails to provide the expected thrill, mainly because the unhealthy-looking Chase just does not provide any energy onscreen.
There are a bunch of callbacks to the original film as well like the fabled girl in a red car, but they feel more obligatory than inspired, and a subplot involving a rival pilot (Ron Livingston) ends on a rather perfunctory note. Goldstein and Daley, making their debut behind the camera after a number of high-profile screenwriting gigs, are competent if not remarkable, sticking to the sort of generic lighting and staging that most comedies are saddled with these days. But most of the jokes land, making this a trip with the Griswolds that is not just endurable but far more entertaining and even hilarious than it had a right to be.