Tuesday, August 4, 2015

On the Road Again: VACATION


At least Vacation, the Harold Ramis-directed/John Hughes-scripted movie from 1983, started with a simple comic premise lampooning bad family car trips. By the time we reach the new combination remake/sequel Vacation, coming after three theatrical sequels and a direct-to-video spinoff, it starts to seem less like a relatable goof and more like a cruel punishment. Every member of the Griswold family is apparently doomed to a life of horrible vacations. If you have one terrible trip, you’ve had a terrible trip. But if you only have terrible trips, it must be you. At least a straightforward remake could’ve regained the original concept’s small charms. Maybe instead of this two-in-one reboot, what we really need is a prequel in which we finally learn how patriarch Gus Griswold insulted whichever warlock gave his family this curse.

The new Vacation is a podgy road trip swollen with an uneven collection of pit stops. The story goes like this. Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) remembers fondly the great vacation his parents (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo) took him on 32 years ago. So he wants to recreate it with his wife (Christina Applegate) and sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins). Misadventures ensue on their way from Illinois to California where Wally World awaits. It’s both the same, and different, making it the Jurassic World of comedies, right down to the endless repetition of the original’s main theme, unimpressive special effects, and characters who have an odd affection for decades-old events that within their world would’ve been inescapably scarring.

But that’s nothing that couldn’t be overcome with good jokes. I should have known writer-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, the screenwriters behind last year’s execrable Horrible Bosses 2, might not be up to the task. At least it’s not that bad. Every stop on the trip heads straight into cameos, in which funny people step into the picture for a brief moment and make it almost watchable. You can’t throw Keegan-Michael Key, Regina Hall, Leslie Mann, Chris Hemsworth, and Charlie Day into a movie and not have at least a few smile-worthy moments. Of the main cast, only Applegate got a laugh out of me. It’s supposed to be funny that the Griswolds are mostly oblivious, a bit rude, gullible, prone to bad decisions and saying awkward things, like when they mistakenly think slang for a sex act means a chaste kiss. A little of this family goes a long way.

Some scenes are mildly amusing, like their car’s confusing features, a man who doesn’t know there’s a rat on his shoulder, and a territorial dispute among police officers at the Four Corners Monument. But many scenes are consistently misjudged. Its dirtiness feels crass, dark humor plays sour, slapstick is just unpleasant, and gross out gags are only gross. If you think the idea of a grown woman face down in a puddle of vomit on a sorority house lawn, or a family mistaking a lagoon of human waste for a hot spring, a steer munching on gory cow viscera, or a woman in a convertible killed in a head on collision with a semi are funny ideas, go for it. There’s a lot more where those came from. It’s not actively hateful like the worst R-rated comedies, but there’s a low-level grinding lazy nastiness that leaves a bad taste. Worst, though, is the way it’s just regurgitated garbage, a copy of a copy of a copy of an original that was merely half-decent to begin with.

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