'Vacation': Film Review

No picnic for the audience.

Ed Helms plays the grown son of Chevy Chase in this raunchy follow-up to the 1983 movie created by John Hughes and director Harold Ramis.

Probably everyone has had the discomfiting experience of sitting stone-faced at a comedy while others in the theater are whooping with laughter. And so it was for me at Vacation, the gross follow-up to the Chevy Chase comedy from 1983, National Lampoon’s Vacation, a smash hit that launched a franchise. Judging from the laughter around me, this new movie should be popular, though it remains to be seen whether the hard-R rating will hurt business for what is essentially a family comedy.

In the original, which was written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Chase and Beverly D’Angelo played Clark and Ellen Griswold, who took their son and daughter on a road trip, headed toward the fictional theme park, Walley World, in California. Now Clark’s son, Rusty (Ed Helms), decides to mimic Dad’s adventure with wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their two sons. The family’s mishaps in the original movie were frequently hilarious, thanks to the talents of Hughes and Ramis. The filmmakers here — screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley  making their directorial debuts, substitute coarseness for genuine cleverness. (Their earlier writing credits, Horrible Bosses and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, didn’t exactly set a high bar.)

These days it doesn’t seem to take much to get audiences to yuk it up. A sequence in which Debbie visits her old college sorority, which ends in a burst of vomiting, is a prime example of this film’s mood of excess. The massacre of a cow, which leaves Rusty covered in bloody bovine intestines, is another scene strictly for viewers who confuse unprecedented grossness with delicious drollness. Then there’s the bathing scene, in which the Griswolds luxuriate in a hot spring filled with raw sewage.

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Amid the parade of tasteless zingers, a few sequences actually hit the mark. The opening scene, which shows Rusty’s job as pilot on an airliner called EconoAir, does say something biting about the nightmare of flying on a bargain-basement aircraft. A sequence with a suicidal tour guide who takes the Griswolds rafting in the Grand Canyon is another pleasing bit of dark comedy. Best of all is a visit to Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann) and cheerfully right-wing brother-in-law (Chris Hemsworth).

Mann is wasted in this sequence, but Hemsworth (Thor himself) reveals an unexpected flair for comedy, as well as an impeccable Southern accent. His appearance in tight, oh-so-revealing briefs is one of the movie’s rude scenes that actually generates guffaws, though it’s overworked by the directors.

In fact, the filmmakers’ unsubtle style is responsible for killing many of the jokes. But they do succeed with several of the performers. It’s a little hard to accept that Anthony Michael Hall (who played Rusty as a child in National Lampoon’s Vacation) would grow into Ed Helms, but Helms actually channels Chase pretty effectively. He plays the same kind of bumbling doofus, and his underlying sweetness always comes through. Applegate is appealing, even if her role is sketchy.The directors hired two talented actors to play the kids: Skyler Gisondo creates an endearing character as the older son, a literary nerd who dreams of taking a road trip out of Jack Kerouac, while Steele Stebbins is the foul-mouthed, bullying younger brother, funny even when his insults fall flat. The offbeat dynamic between the two is one of the movie's better inventions.

Chase and D’Angelo pop up for cameo roles near the conclusion, though one wishes the writers had come up with better comic business for them. As is often the case in today’s raunchy comedies, the filmmakers succumb to sentimentality near the end. (See Trainwreck for another example.) They aren’t willing to go all the way with the raucous juvenile jests that they favor. Some of the musical selections add wit that the script is missing. The studio is already contemplating sequels, which is an even more frightening prospect than a ride on the rickety roller coaster at Walley World.

Production:  New Line Cinema, Benderspink/Big Kid Pictures
Cast:  Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo
Writer-directors:  Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Producers:  David Dobkin, Chris Bender
Executive producers:  Marc S. Fischer, Jeff Kleeman, Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Samuel J. Brown, Dave Neustadter
Director of photography:  Barry Peterson
Production designer:  Barry Robison
Costume designer:  Debra McGuire
Editor:  Jamie Gross
Music:  Mark Mothersbaugh

Rated R, 99 minutes