The fifth theatrical release in National Lampoon’s “Vacation” series – which confusingly has the exact same title as the first entry — has enough laughs to be worth a rental (it’s now available from Redbox). But it’s not destined to be a classic in the vein of “Christmas Vacation” (1989), which many people will screen as per holiday tradition this month.
The 2015 “Vacation” follows the same plot as the 1983 original, except now it’s an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) who wants to take his dysfunctional family to Walley World as a way to make it functional, just as his dad Clark (Chevy Chase) did 32 years before in the John Hughes-penned classic.
While the first four entries had their share of dark humor, it was usually tempered by some sweetness. The new “Vacation,” though, stands out by being incredibly dark, with older son James (Skyler Gisondo) being the primary punching bag, at least early in the film. Youngest son Kevin (Steele Stebbins) tries to suffocate James with a plastic bag. Mom Debbie (Christina Applegate) is annoyed by James’ attempts to give her water after she barfs up a pitcher of beer.
More than once, side characters and innocent animals die for the sake of a punchline. Yes, I know the first film features a relative’s corpse strapped to the roof of the car, but at least Clark and Ellen had the decency to be mildly horrified by what they were doing. No one bats an eye over the horrors in this movie; they’re just kind of worn out by it all.
The casting of the always endearing Helms tempers the dark tone a bit. The series has long since stopped caring about whether there’s believable character continuity between each film, as this “Vacation” no doubt decided to go with a bankable star rather than, say, “Vegas Vacation’s” (1997) Ethan Embry. The same principle applies to Leslie Mann as grown-up Audrey, who was most recently played by Marisol Nichols, and before that, Juliette Lewis. They’re in the same ballpark age-wise, but not remotely in terms of appearance.
Helms has played this well-meaning awkward guy many times before, most notably in “The Office” and “The Hangover” saga and most satisfyingly in “Cedar Rapids.” His character beats (and that of everyone else, for that matter) are predictable, and that’s why this “Vacation” won’t have much rewatchability.
Still, there are decent gags at the expense of all the characters, not just the dad, which is a bit of a switch from the formula. A highlight is when Debbie attempts – and fails miserably — to complete a sorority obstacle course after chugging a pitcher of beer. This “Vacation,” written and directed by the team of John Francis Daley (“Freaks and Geeks” actor) and Jonathan M. Goldstein (“Horrible Bosses” writer), also delivers effective gags featuring pubic hair, a “hot spring” of feces, spray-painted genitalia, and Rusty’s misunderstanding of the definition of a sexual term. The only remotely brainy gag imagines an interaction between four security guards at the Four Corners National Monument.
The most memorable supporting turn comes from Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) as Audrey’s husband, Stone, who stars in a well-crafted penis joke. The appearances by Chase and Beverly D’Angelo – the only actors to play their roles in all five films — are welcome, but they don’t do much other than participate in a few one-liners and gags.
This “Vacation” gets a bit of mileage from parodying the original concept, most notably when Rusty rents a foreign car loaded with unnecessary and ridiculous features that lead to various horrors on the road. It takes the film into completely farcical territory, but it’s not like it left a compelling character drama in the dust to do so.
This “Vacation” (god, I hate that it doesn’t have a better title) probably isn’t the worst of the series; I remember “Vegas Vacation” being boring (with the saving grace of getting to look at Marisol Nichols), but I probably need to do a rewatch of the whole saga. It cranks out the gags and jokes at an enjoyable pace, and while I wish it was more surprising, there is some enjoyment to be had with good ol’ road-trip humor. The original “Vacation” or “Christmas Vacation” this ain’t, but neither is it an embarrassing addition to the lore.