Thirty-three years have passed since Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) first took the family on the road to Walley World, whether they wanted to go or not. Between then and now a lot has happened to change the landscape of comedy. From 1983 to 2015, things that were once a little shocking are now commonplace; language once considered blue is now regular, and a situation with a cringe worthy crude payoff is no longer the exception but the rule. Perhaps a college professor could teach a class on it. He should. Here’s why: Vacation is the epitome of everything wrong with the American movie comedy, from the trailer promoting it to the film itself. No joking.
Writers and first-time directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldtsein have taken characters created by John Hughes and found inspiration not from the original source but from their own work – they wrote Horrible Bosses. The Griswolds were always dysfunctional but they were rarely mean, that’s what made them so likable. There was something recognizable in their antics and behavior that, while exaggerated, resonated enough that family audiences could see something of themselves reflected on their big screen counterparts, no matter how outrageous the situation. Not this time. It’s a different world. It’s a different style of ‘R’ rated comedy. There’s a new generation of Griswolds. The ones that went on a ‘PG’ trip to Las Vegas in 1997 are retired. Going on a vacation with this bunch is not the way you need to spend your summer.
Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is now dad and he wants to do something different for the summer vacation. Instead of another year at the cabin he surprises his family with plans to drive across country – from Chicago to California – to relive the memory of the same trip he took with his parents when he was young; to America’s favorite family theme park: Walley World.
“You want to redo your vacation of thirty years ago?” asks a less than enthusiastic mom, Debbie (Christina Applegate) of her husband. That’s exactly what dad wants, and he’s taking everyone, including his two boys, with him.
Almost everything that happens, including the punchline, is in the trailer. When the family soaks in what it thinks is a hot spring but it’s really a sewage plant, the joke is already known; it was in the trailer. So too is the joke about the girl in the speeding Ferrari. It’s a reference that harks back to the famous Christie Brinkley moment, and it’s a good one, only here it’s played by Hannah Davis and the joke is she crashes. But we already knew that. It was also in the trailer. Imagine how big the laugh would have been when that red Ferrari raced alongside the Griswolds and we didn’t expect it. The surprise would have been great. The trailer kills it.
Fortunately, the film has one saving grace and that’s Christina Applegate as mom. No matter what the film throws at her – including a vomit fueled assault course for charity at her old school where she was known as Debbie Do Anything – Applegate gamely obliges. With a somewhat relatable character, a likable manner, plus a good sense of comic timing, Applegate carries the film. Others in the Griswold clan don’t come off as well.
When Rusty’s character was a child, regardless of the several different actors who played him over the course of the original four big screen features (there were also two-straight-to-video films) he may not have been the brightest academic bulb at school, but compared to his over-enthusiastic dad, he came across as reasonably sensible and continually bemused by his father’s ideas and behavior. In the new Vacation, Ed Helms’ Rusty is an idiot. Dad’s determination to have fun at any cost – at least, as presented here – and his way of going about it are nothing short of infuriating. Even the two Griswold boys annoy. The younger, f-bomb dropping brother berates and bullies the older and it never stops. The joke, of course, is that the bully is the youngest, not the other way around, but there’s little humor in it. The sibling rivalry is just mean.
The thing about big screen comedy is that those who run the studios must think that in order for teenage audiences to laugh the dialog must be foul, the situation vulgar, the behavior crude and the outcome predictable. When Chevy Chase as Clark went on that comically angry rant in 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the f-bomb regarding Bing Crosby dancing with Danny f#%!ing Kaye was funny because the moment built and the cursing was a one-off; it stood out. That’s why you laughed. If that same moment was used in the current Vacation, it would hardly raise a smile, there’s no longer a joke; all characters swear, all the time.
Let’s be honest, the Vacation series was never great; time and nostalgia tend to paint a rosier picture. The first was fun, the Christmas edition remains a seasonal favorite, but the others fizzled, and most aren’t even aware there were a further two that went straight to the home market. Compared to this new 2015 edition, the original John Hughes script now seems like an example of comic restraint; even in its darker comedic moments there remained a sense of good nature within all the characters. It’s odd, then, that the current production would look not to its original source for its style and laughs but for the stupidity and the often mean spirit of ‘R’ rated comedies such as Horrible Bosses. Good comedy is timeless. What was funny in ’83 when the original Vacation was first released can be equally funny today, it’s only the cultural references that date it, not the absence of raunch and f-bombs.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 99 Minutes Overall Rating: 3 (out of 10)