In the course of sitting through the godawful new Vacation sequel, I find that my mind drifts not to the Chevy Chase classic but to the recent remake of Poltergeist. Both are unnecessary down to their very core and neither gives any indication that the filmmakers had any real desire to make a movie that was anything but a brand name. Really, I wouldn’t mind Hollywood’s desperate, obsessive need to remake beloved classics so much if I could be convinced that they at least understood what made them work OR that they even saw the original in the first place.
What nobody involved in this new entry really understands is that the previous four Vacation movies were always mounted on one perfect element: Chevy Chase, whose Clark Griswold was a man admirably obsessed by the pursuit of giving his family a good time. In all of the movies, his single-minded passion was to give his family the perfect holiday despite the fact that they (and the world in general) had grown too cynical to appreciate it. Clark was an eternal optimist who saw the great American landscape more or less the way that Woody Guthrie wrote about it. The most astute observation came in 1989’s Christmas Vacation when a co-worker tells him “You are the last true family man.”
That poignancy is nowhere near this sequel, which is a crude, unfunny and mean-spirited movie based on jokes pointed at projectile vomit, pubic hair, over-sized phalluses, a bloody cow carcass, pedophile jokes, two plastic bag assaults, psycho truck drivers, naked geriatrics, and a gross-out scene (overplayed in the trailers) that has the family swimming in raw sewage. What’s worse is that the jokes aren’t even set up properly; they’re just set-pieces that begin awkwardly and go nowhere.
The movie is a sequel, finding Clark’s son Rusty (Ed Helms) all grown up with fond memories of the family vacations from years past. Previously he was played by Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki and Ethan Embry and what they all had in common was that they played the character as being secretly smarter and more obsessive than the old man. Here, he’s played here by Ed Helms in a performance that is just plain creepy. I don’t know, there’s something about Helms that always keeps me at a distance. He’s trying to mine this character on two possibilities: comical embarrassments and sad poignancy, but he can’t seem to master either one probably because he has a screen presence that is off-putting for a protagonist. It seems that he’d be better to play the jerk.
The movie is established as a sequel, but really it’s just a remake of the first movie with a 2,000 mile car-ride cross-country from Chicago to Wally World in Santa Anita, California with all the shenanigans in tow. The difference is that in this original, the trip was somewhat grounded in reality with the whacky antics happening for a reason. Here the jokes are gross and arbitrary that you just want to hide your eyes. Example, the scene in which Rusty and his wife decide to have sex on the four corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. As they begin to get amorous they not only find another couple beside them, but they find that there is a line of half naked baby boomers waiting to get busy on the monument. The scene has no grounds in reality and isn’t really funny by itself and neither does the follow-up in which the party is crashed by four cops from each state.
Much of the film’s unpleasant spirit comes from the fact that the characters here are unpleasant. Take the Griswold kids, for example; there are two boys this time, an older son James (Skler Gisando) who is a put-upon dweeb and younger son Kevin, a merciless bully whose every word and action toward his older brother is so mean and hateful that it’s unpleasant and hard to watch. In their first scene together, Kevin accuses him of having a vagina, a bad joke that is allowed to run on for several agonizing minutes. His language is a tapestry of vulgar and inane commentary that makes you squirm rather than laugh.
By Rusty’s side is Debbie, his smiling dutiful wife played by Christina Applegate with the same genial I-don’t-think-that’s-such-a-good-idea spirit that Beverly D’Angelo brought to the first movie. Her big scene is stolen right from the plum of “American Dad!” wherein, like Francine Smith, her husband discovers that she had a wild past, but it’s a plot element that goes nowhere. The family takes a side-trip to her old alma mater wherein she partakes in the drunk obstacle course that she made famous all those years ago. But the scene goes nowhere and we have to endure several long minutes of Debbie vomiting on herself.
Aside from that we get characters who have traits, not personalities. That includes a long side trip wherein Rusty reunites with his sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her hulking, dull-witted husband Stone (Chris Hemsworth) who’s overly pronounced sex organ is on display far longer than it needs to be.
The only character in this movie that gets a smile is Charlie Day as Chad a river rafting guide who represents that tour guide that we’ve all known at some point in our lives – loaded with chipper, plastic charm and relentless bad jokes. The joke here is that, just before taking the Griswold’s down the river, his girlfriend calls to break up with him. That leads to a scene on the river wherein he is seated in the back with a thousand yard stare while Harry Nilson’s “Without You” blasts on the soundtrack. That scene works and it had me thinking that maybe Charlie Day might have been better in the lead here. He has the chops to play a put-upon schlub and he probably might have been a better choice to write the screenplay. I know seven year-olds who could write a better screenplay than this.