by Philip Price
It was something of a surprise this new sequel in the ‘Vacation’ series that also intends to serve as something of a reboot or re-make, but isn't really, included the line from the trailer about how this vacation will indeed stand on its own. It seemed a piece of dialogue specifically designed for the marketing campaign so as to let audiences know the movie itself was aware of what it represented and the pressures it might face in convincing audiences it was worthy of the challenge. This line, when given in the trailer, almost made the film more endearing (hey, it knows it has a lot of work to do), but the fact they included it in the final product gave an entirely different impression-one of desperation even. Maybe desperation is the wrong word, maybe a lack of confidence is a better way to put it. The statement itself wants to impose a sense of confidence though, a bold statement of this particular film being its own thing and being successful on its own terms whether there was an original or not. Of course, if this were a world where the original “Vacation” didn't exist we would have (a slightly altered) “We're the Millers” and that would be it. Instead, as brand recognition and nostalgia are at an all-time high thanks to social media and our heightened sense of self-awareness it would be wrong to not try and capitalize on every big brand of generations past. And thus, we have what is essentially a remake (but it's a sequel!) of/to the original film where Stu from the ‘Hangover’ movies plays a grown-up Rusty with call backs aplenty just in case you didn't get that this was in the same timeline as the 1983 film, but that it's still supposed to stand on its own. These call-backs are of course intended to make audiences familiar with the 1983 version recognize the correlation and laugh while those who aren't will hopefully just laugh because...the comedy is timeless? All of these particulars don't really matter though as this is little more than a 90-minute comedy intended to make audiences chuckle. When taken on such simple terms, it does its job well enough. My qualm is why couldn't we do something with these actors/directors/writers that maybe didn't rely on tapping into nostalgia? If we keep re-making and re-visiting old properties what are future generations going to reboot or re-make? Or even worse, be able to call their own?
We are re-introduced to Rusty (Ed Helms) who is now an airline pilot for a smaller company that is apparently working to earn back its customers’ trust after what could be one of many timely incidents that occurred that the script is commenting on. We should talk about the rather insignificant Colin Hanks cameo as well, but there's no time or space or even reason to really do so other than to wonder if that guy is this hard up for work these days? After Ron Livingston makes it clear Rusty is a man keen on taking the less confrontational route we glimpse one of the actual differences in this iteration as compared to the original. As a grown-up Rusty, Helms is no mirror image of the irreverent Clark (Chevy Chase) that took the wheel of the original, but is rather a misconfigured mess of insecurities and seeming naiveté as he can describe a glory hole to his spawn, but not a rim job. It is a wonder how Rusty was able to grow-up and grab a chick like Debbie (Christina Applegate) given her seeming normality when it comes to handling life's common situations, but even that character trait is upended for a laugh when we learn of Debbie's past. Then there are the kids. Going back to the aforementioned statement around which the opening paragraph centers, this “Vacation” is different and will stand on its own if not for anything else, but because this “Vacation” features two boys and not a boy and a girl. Skyler Gisondo plays older brother James whose seeming sensibilities make him far more mature than anyone else around him while Steele Stebbins is the younger brother, Kevin, who is a complete and total asshole. While Rusty is determined to get his family out of their current slump by recreating his childhood vacation to Walley World, no one else seems to be interested. Still, the adventure begins and we are along for a ride that probably should have been reconsidered before it even began.
It is always fun to laugh at others’ misfortunes. Hell, it's even fun to laugh at your own with a little time put between you and the unexpected, but what differentiates this new “Vacation” from the original is largely the style of humor in which they each operate. The original gave us sly bits of observational humor everyone who'd been stuck in a car with their family for an extended period of time could relate to while this sequel/reboot/re-make goes consistently for the outlandish. This isn't necessarily a mark against it, but more it feels like a mark of the times rather than a conscious decision. Directors John Francis Daley (who you might recognize from “Freaks & Geeks”) and Jonathan M. Goldstein wrote both ‘Horrible Bosses’ films (both of which I really enjoy) as well as several others that are hit or miss with “Vacation” being their major directorial effort though, they throw a lot at the wall and for the most part, things stick, but it isn't hard to see what they're going for. I realize comedy is the most subjective genre and always will be which will always make them the more difficult films to try and step back and look at fairly. Still, amounts of stupidity and gross out gags aside, I had a good time watching what Daley and Goldstein rolled out for the audience. When the end goal is taken into consideration, how much do you try to make something your own while still clearly paying homage to what has come before? It is a fine line to walk and I realize I've been rather harsh on this aspect so far in this review, but I also realize it is not an enviable task. For all of the obvious jokes including the weird foreign car Rusty inexplicably rents before planning the titular event in a matter of minutes to the whole hot springs bit that was spoiled in the trailers there are equal moments of genuine hilarity that had me appreciating the potential of re-evaluating this material in a modern setting. Whether it be a bit including the Four Corners Monument and some fun cameos that deliver in their moment or the water rafting segment featuring Charlie Day that is absolutely hysterical for Day's character alone, there is plenty of promise to outweigh the transparent.
In essence, “Vacation” 2015 is harmless if not fun and ultimately somewhat forgettable. I like Helms well enough and he is at least committed to eliciting as many laughs as possible here. His Rusty is something of a question mark though despite the fact he's clearly trying and desperately dedicated why Helms decided to make Rusty a bit of a clueless dork seems to only be so that he might be ignorant enough to think a trip to Walley World would be enough to fix his relationships with his children as well as his fractured marriage. Applegate's Debbie has seemingly lost all interest in the suburban life she's built for herself and with Kevin constantly trying to be the break-out character by yelling expletives at those around him James is the closest we have to anything actually relatable. What are little more than glorified cameos for Chase and Beverly D'Angelo only serve to solidify what a bitch time can be given the pair hardly resemble who they once were. If anyone comes away as a winner rather than simply unscathed it is Chris Hemsworth. As the most popular weatherman in Plano, Texas Stone Crandall is an outright conservative who herds cattle and then feeds them ribs before heading to the station. Helms gets a nice drive-thru joke out of an experience trying to fit in with Stone, but Hemsworth steals every scene he's in by flexing all of his acting muscles. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Leslie Mann who, as the grown-up Audrey, doesn't get a laugh to save her life that is due mainly to Daley and Goldstein's script not really knowing what to do with her. Keegan-Michael Key and Regina Hall also make appearances early in the film and deliver solid bits, but they ultimately feel more like an obligatory inclusion to show diversity among the cast rather than as an integral part of the story. Oh well, I got a "it's funny because it's true" moment out of Hall and the combination of pit-stops featuring Hemsworth and Day are worth the price of admission alone so I wouldn't necessarily label this a disappointment, but rather a pretty standard comedy despite it striving for eccentric and shocking the majority of the time.