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VACATION (2015) review

August 3, 2015

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written by: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
produced by: David Dobkin, Chris Bender
directed by: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
rating: R (for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity) 
runtime: 99 min.
U.S. release date: July 29, 2015

 

“The journey sucks, but that’s what makes you appreciate the destination.”

Rebooting a franchise is never an easy task, and many have turned out far better than the new “Vacation” reboot with even less access to the history of the franchise they’re rebooting. This is, therefore, a warning right up front to let everyone know that a reboot does not need a connection to the original source material, cast members, characters, or anything else to automatically be good and worthy of carrying on a franchise name.

In fact, if this reboot/sequel of 1983’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation” proves anything at all, it’s that none of those elements are really all that crucial if the script is good enough, the cast is game enough, and the laughs come early and often. 2015’s “Vacation” has none of this. At all. It’s a ruinous film that fundamentally does not understand what comedy is or how to derive laughter from an audience without shocking and or forcing them to laugh.

There’s no sense beating around the bush: this movie sucks. It sucks a lot. A whole lot. It’s very important to understand why it sucks though, because it didn’t have to, and by all rights really shouldn’t have.

 

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The first reason it sucks is because it can’t seem to figure out if it wants to be a reboot, a remake, or a direct sequel to the first film. It’s basically attempting to tick off all three of those boxes in one film, and therefore never successfully pulls off any of them. The fact of the matter is that the “Vacation” franchise has been sullied enough by subpar latecomer entries and disastrous direct to video spin-offs, so don’t think that this film is coming into some revered hall of comedy and making a mockery of the whole thing. It’s merely another uninspired attempt to wring blood of a stone that’s long since dried up, and it shows.

The second reason the film sucks is that it has a script that I wouldn’t even deign to call subpar. It’s a mess of awkward comedy bits that don’t land, half realized characters, third tier attempts to recreate moments from the original franchise, and worst of all, unmemorable gross out sight gags involving exploding cows, pubic hair, abnormally large genitalia, and vehicular manslaughter. Writers – and first time directors – John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein may have lucked out when they created “Horrible Bosses“, but all of that film’s weaknesses rise to the surface here early and often. The film has precisely zero scripted funny jokes. Both laughs I had came from Charlie Day, who’s short cameo is sadly the film’s only highlight, but from a script and direction standpoint, that scene tries too hard to essentially recreate the tranquilizer dart scene from “Old School”.

The major reason “Vacation” sucks, however, is that it’s just not good enough to stand on its own two feet without leaning on the things that made the first three films so great in the first place.

 

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The most glaring problem comes from casting Ed Helms in the lead role as Rusty. If there was a point to the original “Vacation” films, and especially the character of Rusty, it was always that he was going to be alright as an adult, despite his father’s repeated attempts to screw up his childhood. Watching grown Rusty attempt to recreate his father’s mistakes whole cloth is not only disheartening, it more or less undercuts this point and therefore degrades the original films. Helms is not funny enough or original enough of a leading man to make the film work. We’re forced to watch him flounder as he does a second-rate impression of Chevy Chase, and resort to outlandish “look at me” attempts to pull focus when confronted with funnier co-stars in a scene.

Helms does this most often in his scenes with on-screen wife Christina Applegate, an infinitely more gifted comedic actor than Helms who is stuck doing some of the most degrading physical comedy I’ve ever seen an actress subjected to. If the film could have used more of anything, it’s a woman’s touch. All of the female characters from Applegate to Leslie Mann’s Audrey to Beverly D’Angelo’s Ellen, are forced to volley for their significantly less funny male co-stars in virtually every scene. Watching Mann take a back seat to a hopelessly miscast Chris Hemsworth should have been more upsetting than it was, but it had become par for the course by that point in the film that it was nothing if not expected. Chase is equally unfunny, covering himself in flop sweat attempting to recreate something that was once so effortless for him.

The only male actors in the film that come out relatively unscathed are Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins as Rusty and Debbie’s kids  Kevin and James… Let that one sink in for a second. As the younger and more aggressive of the two, Stebbins more or less steals the whole film with a lot of effortless laughing at his father, mother, and older brother’s incompetence. He may be obnoxious, but at least he’s committed to it. Gisondo is also good as the older, more sensitive Griswold boy, but forcing a female love interest on him felt like something of a cop-out after the film took the time to establish that his character was either gay or at the very least, asexual. He handles this and other awkward situations the filmmakers put him in like a pro, however, and likely has a bright future ahead of him.

This film is a complete and total waste of time, money, and resources. There’s no one joke, set piece, or actor worth the price of admission. Much like fans of the franchise have for the better part of 18 years now, it’s best to just pretend the series ended with 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”. It’s virtually impossible to recreate true magic, and trying to force it to happen only calls into focus how foolish any attempt to do so can be.

At the very least, this film could have used a better script, more competent directors, and an entirely new adult male cast. Even with all of that, however, I’m not sure this really could have worked. All of the elements were in place for it to be a success and it still failed. Perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be.

 

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RATING: *

 

 

 

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