There’s a reason Vacation (1983) is still remembered so fondly after so many years: it features A) Chevy Chase at the top of his game, B) a smart and satirical screenplay from John Hughes, C) the deft comedic touch of director Harold Ramis, and D) a whole bunch of random little assets scattered around the periphery. At its heart, the original Vacation is about a sweet but clueless father who desperately wants to recapture the innocence of his own youth by tossing his family into the car and driving across the country. Vacation led to European Vacation (1985), Christmas Vacation (1989), Vegas Vacation (1997), and now, 32 years later, just another Vacation.
I’m not exactly sure who this new Vacation is meant to entice into theaters, but speaking only as a guy who watched the original Vacation at least five times as a kid, I assumed that I was the target audience for the new sequel. But I’m not. The target audience for Vacation (2015) is, I suppose, someone who finds gross-out humor hilarious, flat vulgarity uproarious, and mean-spirited misery the pinnacle of all things amusing. Sure, the original Vacation boasted a solid handful of jokes that were dark (dog tied to the bumper), gross (dead old lady strapped to the roof of a car), and sexually disturbing (Uncle Eddie) — but that film also had warmth, wit, and an actual sense of “Murphy’s Law” satire.
The new Vacation is so overtly, consistently, and desperately gross that it obliterates any chance of some charm leaking out. If you removed every joke that qualifies as disgusting, degrading, or wildly mean-spirited, then Vacation Part 5 (that’s what I’m calling it) would run about six minutes in total. It’s not that I can’t deal with ugly humor; it’s that ugly humor is all this film has to offer — which would be fine if even half of it was funny, which it isn’t, or if the two leads weren’t trying so hard to wring laughs out of material this simplistic.
The plot: Rusty Griswald (Ed Helms) is all-grown up with a family of his own, so he decides to drive his clan from Chicago to California, just like his dad Clark (Chevy Chase) did when Rusty was a kid, albeit in a much funnier film. And, of course, everything that can go wrong, does. The rental car is a joke, the kids in the back seat won’t behave, and every stop along the way is loaded with mistakes, pratfalls, and outright absurdity. But for a movie that claims to be a comedy, Vacation is aggressively mean, unpleasant, and angry for most of its running time. It almost feels like a Happy Madison production. (It’s also edited in bizarre fashion; characters just vanish, and sometimes punch-lines don’t even bother to show up.)
Ed Helms does the best he can with the material, although it’s pretty difficult to watch a comedian of his caliber forced to roll around in poop for a laugh. On the rare occasion when Vacation isn’t being smug, smarmy, and tacky, Helms does manage to deliver a few good quips and some amusing slapstick shtick — and god bless Christina Applegate for delivering (at least) three legitimate laughs that aren’t focused on pee, poop, penises, or misery. (As Rusty’s older son, newcomer Skyler Gisondo also steals a few scenes with some droll line deliveries and bizarre facial contortions.) Helms and Applegate work so much harder than their cruel, childish screenplay does that it boggles the mind.
And that’s the main problem here: that for every half-decent one-liner there are at least six gags that mistake scatology for wit. There’s certainly nothing wrong with resorting to gross-out gags and shock value material to yank a cheap laugh from your audience, but when that’s all your movie has to offer, it starts to get really old really fast. (“Ewww!” and “Ha!” don’t even sound alike, so I’m really confused here.) Unfortunately, “Ewww!” seems to be all that co-directors / co-writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein are aiming for here.
Although not a total waste of time, thanks mainly to the two leads and a handful of cameo appearances (Chris Hemsworth and Leslie Mann deliver more chuckles in five minutes than the rest of the movie does in 90), Vacation is just so constantly and oppressively gross that it starts to feel like more of endurance test than a light comedy. In the original Vacation, John Hughes wanted to poke fun at the family road trip, and he did so with a good deal of insight, craftsmanship, and versatility. This new one is content to be cruel, crass, and blithely nihilistic. And I have no idea why.
[One burrito for Helms, another one for Applegate, and a half a burrito for everything else.]