In the early minutes of “Vacation”, a grown-up Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms), now a pilot for a discount commercial airline, pronounces to his family that this “Vacation” will be a little different from the first “Vacation”. Because this time around, he points out, it’s two boys instead of a boy and a girl (referring to a young Russ and sister Audrey, who were carted off to Wally World by maniacal family man Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase in the 1983 classic). Sure, some things will be the same. But ultimately, this “Vacation” will stand on its own.
It should serve as a warning any time a product’s existence needs to be justified so bluntly. Of course, the line is meant to be humorous, as if reassuring older generations who were lured into the theater by their love of the National Lampoon original to hang on to their Ben Gay and get ready for some real comedy. Alas, it ends up being more of a cruel joke than “haha” funny.
Laughs are sparse in this new Griswold family outing, which is written and directed by “Horrible Bosses” contributors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein. With lazy, redundant gags and an overall mean-spritedness coursing through 98 minutes, this “Vacation” reboot might have been more appropriately named “Horrible Parents”; It is so dismayingly ugly and interchangeable that I felt like I was watching a ripoff of 2013’s raunchy road comedy “We’re the Millers”.
Nestled comfortably in a Chicago suburb, the Griswold family consists of Rusty, wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and two boys: artistic, awkward adolescent James (Styler Gisondo) and his F-Bomb spewing, shitheel of a younger brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins), a mercilessly cruel kid who faces no repercussions for his actions, ever. We’re introduced to him after he inscribes “I Have A Vagina” on James’ acoustic guitar, a joke that plays out for about five minutes and is a great meter of what to expect for the rest of the movie.
When Rusty discovers that their annual trip to Lake Michigan hasn’t been as magical for Debbie as he’d thought, he impulsively whips up an excursion to California’s Wally World theme park, hoping, out of some distorted nostalgia, that everyone will bond. Despite their many, many, many objections, obtuse Russ stuffs the clan into an Albanian-made station wagon, a veritable death-trap outfitted with more gags than a clown car (shattering windows, a GPS that shouts in Korean, and predictably, a self-destruct button).
The trip takes them past Debbie’s college campus in Tennessee, where once upon a time she was known as “Debbie Do Anything”, and she takes on an obstacle course where beer chugging, vomiting and a bad hangover ensues. The gang also visits Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann), who now lives on a sprawling ranch out West with hunky and well-endowed weather man Stone Crandall (Chris Hemsworth). An invitation to herd cattle ends with Rusty plowing through a steer on a four-wheeler, covering him in entrails; the resulting joke will produce one of the film’s handful of snickers, when Rusty mentions stopping by a “drive-thru” burger joint.
Cameos from Keegan-Michael Key, Charlie Day and Ron Livingston, among others, either fall terribly flat or are wildly overplayed. A “Joy Ride” type run-in with a creepy trucker (Norman Reedus) and a dip in raw sewage hew strictly to boilerplate slapstick, while an homage to Christie Brinkley’s Ferrari-driving nymph is something that might have been conjured by Todd Phillips on a particularly dark day. Even a pit stop to see Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, who run a dump of a B & B in San Francisco, is too little, too late. After witnessing poor James’ attempt to court a young woman (Catherine Missal) get thwarted for the umpteenth time, and after enduring at least three scenes in which Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” is the central joke, this movie feels more like desperation than “Vacation”.