There must be a way to pay tribute to ’80s comedy classics like “National Lampoon’s Vacation” without using the opportunity to traffic in archaic sexism, gender panic and off-color racial jokes. The reboot of the franchise, “Vacation,” does not take that chance. Instead, with a script lazily smeared with profanity and bodily fluids, it feels retro in the bad way. It quickly loses its edge and appeal, and this retelling of the family vacation gone wrong results in a sloppily executed mess of a summer comedy.
The doomed family trip is a relatable goldmine of humor and obviously contributes to the enduring appreciation for the concept. “Vacation” replicates many of the same story beats from the original — Walley World, a hot road-trip crush, a ridiculous vehicle. The recognition factor is about as far as the collective nostalgia and shared laughs go. This time, the misguided Griswold patriarch is Rusty (Ed Helms), Clark’s son, who was just a kid in the original. As he drags his family out to revitalize the annual summer trip, things go from bad to worse, much like this film.
Helms, bless his heart, does his darndest. The eternal optimism and cheerful naivete that he brings to patriarch Rusty are endearing, if baffling, in the face of disaster, humiliation, and other bodily horrors rained upon the Griswolds. At one point, he happily begins to scrub a bloodstained shower with a Brillo pad of body hair, which is after wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) vomits an entire pitcher of beer, and before the entire family flops about in the raw sewage of “Griswold Springs.” The best parts of this film are when Helms puts his musical talent into earnestly singing Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” He plays the well-meaning buffoon well, but Helms just lacks the hint of darkness that Chevy Chase brought as Clark Griswold.
Teenage son James (Skyler Gisondo) takes after his dad’s sweet nature, which does nothing to help the bullying from his younger brother, Kevin (Steele Stebbins), a miniature psychopath with a serious potty mouth. The problem with Kevin is that he’s got the willingness and mean spirit to torment his brother but not the smarts — he’s just not funny or clever, despite the film’s insistence that he might be.
There’s an entire Gender Studies thesis contained in the masculine anxieties expressed in “Vacation.” Rusty vacillates between neurosis and total obliviousness regarding the challenges to his manhood that they encounter. He bemoans that he’s not cool enough for Debbie, who has slept with more partners than he, but doesn’t even notice when Chris Hemsworth, as a conservative Ken doll weatherman with a Farrah Fawcett hairdo, grinds at the duo. Applegate, as Debbie, dutifully plays the role of unruly woman tamed by domesticity, constantly reassuring Rusty of his capabilities as a man. Eventually, he proves his masculinity — with a knock-down, drag-out fistfight.
Representational issues aside, the film is just bad. The script by writer-directors Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley is lazy and overly relies on profanity and sex in lieu of real jokes. The first time a 10-year-old boy drops an F-bomb? Shocking and a bit funny. The next 15 times? Not so much. The direction is serviceable, if unremarkable. Ultimately, much like Griswold Springs, it stinks.
☆ out of 5
Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo.
Directors: Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley.
Running time: 99 minutes.
Rated: R, for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity.