Watching Vacation, a remake of the first in the National Lampoons Vacation series, feels like watching an inexperienced comedian spitballing new material without any real idea where it’s going: every now and then, there’ll be a hit, but more often than not there are misses. He or she will often resort to crassness for lack of any stronger material – might even make meta-gags about the show itself.
In other words, Vacation is a film without much holding it together. It’s earnest, and that’s to the credit of first-time directors (and co-screenwriters) John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who co-wrote Horrible Bosses), but it’s also scattershot and, in its lowest ebbs, slightly cringeworthy. It’s a film that begs you to laugh at it, and sometimes you might – even if, as with a surprisingly funny Chris Hemsworth cameo, you feel a little embarrassed to have laughed at all.
Ed Helms stars as Rusty Griswold (playing the grown-up version of Antony Michael Hall’s character from the original film), who drags his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and two sons James and Kevin (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) across America on a road trip to Walley World, which was the plot of the Chevy Chase-starring original (Chase, incidentally, reprises that role briefly here).
The approach to humour in Vacation is pretty varied: Daley and Goldstein throw out everything they can, hoping that some of it sticks. Some of it does. There’s an amusing recurring gag about how James is bullied by his younger brother, and another about the weird Albanian-made car Rusty has rented for the drive. “There’s a Swastika button on there,” says Debbie, looking at the new car’s elaborate key fob. “We won’t use that,” says Rusty. There are also a couple of well played individual scenes, including a meeting of police officers from four states at the Four Corners Monument, a bizarre little scene in which James’ father pretends not to know him in order to act as his wingman, and a brief look at Clark Griswold’s cleaning skills.
But sadly there are at least as many bad jokes as there are good ones. Some of the more crass humour (an extended vomiting scene; James misunderstanding the meaning of ‘rim job’) is pretty laugh-free, and every time there’s a dud joke, the film has to work to rebuild its audience good will. There are set pieces throughout that feel undercooked, as though they could’ve been much better with more refined writing. It’s not that the performances are bad – the film just fails to blend them into something cohesive or consistent. It’s also quite happy to forget about most of its characterisation until right at the end, which I suppose is par for the course for a lot of comedy films, but it does feel a little cynical.
This road trip isn’t as bad as you might have heard, but it’s not a journey I can honestly recommend taking.