REVIEW — “Vacation” (In-Depth)
If you’ve read my Vacation review, you know that I said you’re better off taking a “staycation” than trekking out to see this “remake that’s not a remake.” In this latest installment of Under Further Review, I’m taking an in-depth look at Vacation and why it’s the road trip from Hell.
Early on, Vacation takes the time for Rusty Griswold to tell his family – and the audience – that this vacation isn’t a repeat of the original, better vacation from thirty years ago: 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation. “This vacation will stand on its own,” says Rusty to an apathetic, unimpressed family, in what attempts to be a meta-joke. This isn’t the filmmakers being aware and taking a nearly fourth-wall-breaking dig at themselves. It’s a desperate attempt to convince everyone that this isn’t simply a repeat of what was already done more than thirty years ago.
This new Vacation-that-totally-isn’t-a-remake wants the best of both worlds – it wants the Griswolds, it wants the family truckster, it wants Walley World, it wants Holiday Road, it wants photographs from the first four Vacation films, it wants to use the Vacation branding – but it doesn’t want to be true to any of these things that came before. Vacation pretends to be a sequel, when it’s really nothing more than a raunchier, grosser, racier redo of Harold Ramis’ and John Hughes’ 1983 original. Having a family called the Griswolds, playing Holiday Road over the opening credits, revisiting Walley World, and shoe-horning in the family truckster all come across as attempting to cash in on nostalgia while at the same time spitting in the face of the film those elements are stolen from.
If the filmmakers – co-directors and co-writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein – wanted to be true to National Lampoon’s Vacation, they could have made a film that retained its spirit. Vacation features the vulgar sense of humor you’d find in Horrible Bosses, where it tries to be as vulgar and as shocking as possible. That kind of humor and filmmaking is fine – if your movie isn’t the fifth film in an established franchise. National Lampoon’s Vacation, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Christmas Vacation, and Vegas Vacation all had a certain sense of a humor and tone. Vacation – being the fourth sequel to National Lampoon’s Vacation – had an obligation to remain true to that established humor and tone, and that obligation wasn’t fulfilled. By veering off from what was established before, audiences were left with a film that wants to be part of the Vacation canon, but one that doesn’t feel like it belongs. This Vacation is the odd man out. It’s like a real life Cousin Eddie: it’s dumb, it’s crass, it’s repulsive, and it’s unwelcome at family reunions – the “family reunion” being the Vacation series.
Vacation distances itself from the rest of the series by being as classless and as immature as a South Park episode. This Vacation would be much more at home in the Horrible Bosses franchise. If this film were called “Horrible Bosses: Road Trip,” I wouldn’t have a problem with its kind of jokes, or its kind of tone. But this film is called Vacation. It uses Holiday Road. It uses the wagon queen family truckster. It uses the Griswolds. It uses Walley World. Because of that – just by having the title be “Vacation” and by purporting to be the successor of the 1983 film – this film is obligated to being true to what came before. If this wasn’t a Vacation movie, I wouldn’t have these complaints. As it is, it would be like making a Back to the Future Part IV – an R rated, over-the-top, outrageous comedy where Marty and Doc make an endless stream of dick jokes. Even if you think that might be a good movie, it wouldn’t be true to what came before. It wouldn’t gel with the rest of the series.
National Lampoon’s Vacation wasn’t about a nightmarish, cross country road trip. It was about family. Each Vacation film has been about a family encountering obstacles as the well-meaning father perseveres to provide that family with an enjoyable, memorable vacation. Clark Griswold’s (Chevy Chase) goal with each Vacation was always something you could root for, because he had a relatable, lovable family. They unappreciated Clark at times, sure. But in the end – every time – they came together and showed they truly loved one another. They cared for and supported one another. They stood up for each other, and they were the kind of family you see in movies that makes you wish you were a relative. You believed that this was a real family.
In Vacation, these “Griswolds” aren’t a family. They’re a group of people who all try to “out assh*le” one another. I didn’t buy that these people were a family, which is a huge problem in a film that is – or is supposed to be – about a family. Vacation is populated with mean, unlikable characters. We never see why Rusty gives a sh*t about these people. Rusty cares about them because he’s “Superdad,” and because the script says he cares about them. Kevin, the youngest son, is a “dumbass,” says Rusty. Rusty isn’t wrong: Kevin is a dumbass, and he’s a twisted little shit. When we meet him in Vacation, he’s just defaced his older brother’s guitar with “I have a vagina.” Kevin then goes on to relentlessly
tease torment his sibling with endless insults and threats – Kevin goes so far as to say he would shoot his brother. You believe it, too.
Jason, Rusty’s older son, is a whiny crybaby – and the film treats him like one. Rusty’s wife, Debbie, is bored, she’s not supportive, and she’s uncommunicative. Most of all, none of these people have any respect for Rusty. They demean or belittle Rusty at every opportunity. Rusty’s whole, entire goal – his only purpose in this movie – is to give his family a nice vacation! Rusty wants to get his family to Walley World so that they can ride the Velociraptor, the greatest roller coaster in the world. Rusty is doing this for them! He’s going through Hell for these people, and we can’t support it because of how terrible they are. They’re mean to Rusty, they’re mean to each other, they’re mean to other people. I didn’t want to see this family get to Walley World and have a good time, I wanted to see this family drown in a river-rafting accident. I wanted to see these Griswolds smashed by a semi. (Instead, some innocent woman “comically” gets taken out in this fashion). I wanted to see these Griswolds take each other out in a Hunger Games-esque fight to the death.
When it finally comes time for the family to rally behind dad, it doesn’t play as though they’re fighting for him, their patriarch and this man they love. It is an actual, physical fist fight. But they’re not engaging in hand-to hand combat for Rusty. No, they’re fighting as an outlet. They’re fighting because they like to fight. They’re fighting because they “haven’t had a fight like that in years,” in Debbie’s case. The Griswolds aren’t fighting to defend Rusty, they’re fighting to secure seats on a roller coaster. This is supposed to bring the family together, the goal is achieved, they’re on the Velociraptor. Whoo-hoo? Yay? Am I supposed to be happy these terrible people got what they wanted? That’s like rooting for the Joker after he shoots Batman in the face.
Imagine if in Back to the Future, we didn’t care about Marty McFly, and didn’t care if he made it back to 1985? Imagine if we didn’t care about Andy in The Shawshank Redemption? Chuck in Cast Away? Luke in Star Wars? How are we supposed to support the protagonist and their goals – and then cheer when the goal has been reached – if we don’t like the people we’re watching? Sorry, Daley and Goldstein, having the quartet sing “Kiss from a Rose” on a roller coaster isn’t enough to sell me on the idea that this is a family who cares about each other. By that time in the film, we don’t care. Even Seal doesn’t give a sh*t about Kiss from a Rose.
We don’t care about these Griswolds because they don’t care about each other, and we don’t care because Vacation is completely devoid of any heart, emotion, or warmth. National Lampoon’s Vacation took the time to slow down and have Clark have a man-to-man, heart-to-heart talk with Rusty. Nothing like that happens in Vacation. Instead, the only scene where Rusty and James are alone is by a hot tub, where Rusty kindly informs his son what a “rim job” is. Ed Helms is a talented singer and guitar player. The son, James, is portrayed as a singer and guitar player in the movie. Vacation could have taken a nice moment to slow down, dial back the zaniness, and have a sweet, touching moment where Rusty and James sing an acoustic guitar song together. The opportunity was there, and that opportunity was thrown away in favor of having a teenage son ask his father about a “rim job.” The filmmakers blew an opportunity to add in some much needed heart or human emotion in favor of Immature Dirty Word Joke #574.
It’s even worse once we find out that Rusty – a commercial airline pilot – hasn’t pursued avenues in his career, for the sake of his family. “I’m not sacrificing anything because I have everything I want,” says Rusty at one point. Really, Rus? You wanted a family of selfish, narcissistic assh*les who demean you? I bought that the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Vacation were a family. I bought it in European, Vegas, and Christmas Vacation. I didn’t buy it in Vacation. In the original, they fought, they argued. The siblings messed with each other. Rusty peeked in Audrey’s purse, Audrey ate peanut butter cups and smiled at Rusty with them in her teeth. That’s the extent the “sibling vs. sibling” rivalry went. Here? The younger brother would full on murder the older brother if the situation arose, and actively tries to by suffocating him with a plastic bag. It’s a far cry away from the realistic sibling relationship found in the original: there, Rusty comforted an upset Audrey when the family was ready to give up on Walley World, turn around, and go home.[wpdevart_youtube]2GQSwMCHJNU[/wpdevart_youtube]
No love, affection, warmth, or kindness is present here. Vacation is soulless. If Vacation is your introduction to the Vacation series, you’ll think the series is about dicks and vomit. But Vacation has always been about family, and the kind of bonding experience that a vacation is. This is just a bunch of sh*tty things happening to a bunch of sh*tty people. We don’t sympathize or relate with them – instead, we feel as if every bad thing that happens is some kind of karmic justice, being handed down by the universe as punishment to these bad people. If that were the movie’s stance on the characters, fine. But it’s not. The filmmakers expect us to like, sympathize with, and root for these characters, but they forgot – or didn’t bother – to give us reason to do any of those things. Clark was a bit under-appreciated by his family, but when they reunite after Clark’s desert suicide mission – or the way they all happily embrace one another inside the family truckster once they finally, finally spot Walley World up ahead – it’s clear that there’s love between this family.
They weren’t as into the idea of a cross country drive to Walley World the way Clark was, but it was always apparent that they loved and supported the kooky, zany dad/husband. Those Griswolds sang along to the Marty Moose theme. “That’s more like it,” says Clark, his family having fun together. There’s nothing like that in Vacation. No, the ripoff “Kiss from a Rose” sing along doesn’t count, as it has no dramatic effect or weight to it. The whole film, the Griswolds of Vacation aren’t having fun together. They aren’t growing closer or bonding. They’re all miserable, mean people who are suffering together. They never take the time to laugh off something that just happened. They never take the time to enjoy each others company. They’re just… four people stuck together in a foreign rental car. Maybe Rusty cares about these people – somehow – but I sure as hell didn’t. And there’s another big flaw with Vacation: these Griswolds aren’t likeable.
The filmmakers were so focused on coming up with situations to put the characters in that they didn’t bother to actually develop those characters. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – another John Hughes comedy classic – had two characters suffering mishaps as they made a road trip journey. You laughed at them, you laughed with them, and you cared about them. You cared because those were living, breathing characters that existed in the real world. Vacation has another huge problem: it’s a cartoon. National Lampoon’s Vacation worked so well in part because it was relatable. I wouldn’t have a problem with the “exaggerated reality” in Vacation if this film weren’t a sequel to four films that were clearly established as being in the real world. The film shows us that it’s clearly a successor to the previous films – going out of its way to reference them – so we know that this is that same world. Thing is, it doesn’t feel like it. Even the more outlandish parts of the Vacation series – like strapping a deceased relative to the top of a car or a sleeping Clark blazing through a highway, asleep at the wheel, and not leaving so much as a scratch on a single person – were grounded in reality enough to the point of being believable. Vacation has over the top characters, in over the top situations. Even the universally relatable moments – like a sibling teasing you in the backseat – has to be pushed to the point of being over the top and “extreme!”
This film rips off situations from National Lampoon’s Vacation and runs them through a Looney Tunes filter. The original has the truckster jump a ramp? Vacation has the car roll over and flip a dozen times – with no one inside getting so much as bruised, of course, because this is a cartoon). The original has the family getting stuck in the desert. Vacation has the family getting stuck in the desert, so Rusty can kick a fire hydrant that is conveniently covered by a tumbleweed. (At this point, I started looking for the Road Runner and that damn coyote in the background). The original has Aunt Edna expire in her sleep? Vacation has a woman obliterated head-on by a semi truck, and throws another person off of a waterfall, who bounces between the rocks like the ball in a pinball machine. The original has the family stay in a dumpy camping ground? Vacation has the family stay in a room that has the shower from Psycho and all the pubic hair from ALF.
The original has Clark taking a bite from a sandwich that was peed on by a dog? Vacation has the Griswolds put sh*t in their mouths and eyes (no consequences or harmful effects, of course). The original has Clark and Ellen try to be intimate on a vibrating bed? Vacation has Rusty and Debbie try to be intimate on the Four Corners, where they encounter a group of half-nude, middle aged people all with the same idea, standing around in the dark like zombies from The Walking Dead. The original has Cousin Eddie, Vacation has brother in law Stone Crandall. Crandall is Cousin Eddie – he’s oblivious, he has a thing for the protagonist’s wife, and he’s Southern. Make no mistake, this is Vacation‘s version of Cousin Eddie: he’s just good looking and rich.
The vacation in the original could have been your family vacation. The mishaps in Christmas Vacation could happen to you. Vacation is a Family Guy episode, stretched out to two hours. It’s a sequel to four films that were clearly set in reality, but Vacation doesn’t play by the same rules. Here, four police officers try to arrest one another like they’re in a Three Stooges skit. The Griswolds rent a foreign car that has a GPS that gets set to Korean; the GPS then starts yelling, it doesn’t like to be touched, and it gets exhausted to the point where it starts panting. The car comes with a remote that has an excess of silly buttons on it – one of which is a swastika. One button on the remote blows out the windows. Another button makes the car explode. Yet another button makes the driver’s seat rotate completely, while the car is in motion. This sci-fi car comes straight out of a cartoon, and that sums up Vacation: a Saturday morning cartoon.
Vacation has this going for it, however: right from the opening credits, it lets you know what you’re in for. Whereas National Lampoon’s Vacation featured Holiday Road over top postcards from all over America, Vacation opens with Holiday Road over top vacation photos. But these aren’t regular vacation photos, no: these ones feature erections, vomit, and other bodily functions. When even the opening credits aren’t safe from an immature, juvenile sense of humor, it’s a bad sign. It’s bad sign of having nothing new to offer. Wait, sorry – Vacation does bring new things to the Vacation series, like a cannibal cow who likes the taste of cow meat. It brings blood and guts. It brings exploding cars, projectile vomit, violent deaths, penis graffiti, human feces, and the mentions of “AIDS,” “rape,” and “pedophiles” to the table. Four previous Vacation films didn’t have to rely on such things to be funny. Bringing them to the table now tells me one thing: Daley and Goldstein don’t “get” Vacation. If they had, Vacation could have been its own thing while staying true to spirit of the original. Ed Helms was the perfect choice to headline the continuation of the Vacation franchise – it’s just a shame Helms had to star in this crude, crass, cynical, heartless
This remake wants to separate itself from the original, while at the same time shamelessly cashing in on the original’s name, brand recognition, story, and even its characters. Having a family called the Griswolds go on a hellish road trip to a Marty Moose-plastered Walley World – and having them make the last of their trek in a Metallic Pea family truckster – isn’t enough to pay tribute to a film that you’re
making a ripoff of making a sequel to. Making a sequel that retains the spirit of the original would have been enough of a tribute to National Lampoon’s Vacation. As it is, Vacation isn’t a sequel. It’s not a love-letter to the original. It’s not a spiritual successor. Vacation pretends to be, to cash in on nostalgia and name recognition, but the result is a soulless film that lacks identity.
Forget the Griswolds. Forget Holiday Road. Forget the family truckster. Forget Walley World. This isn’t a Vacation movie. This is a straight-to-DVD American Pie sequel that was renamed and re-purposed as a Vacation film for brand recognition. Here’s the biggest problem with Vacation: It takes a lot more than slapping “Vacation” on the title, using the Griswold names, and making references to a thirty year old movie to make a Vacation film. Vacation is the loud, crass, unfunny, witless idiot at the party who thinks shouting “penis” is hilarious.
I’ll stick with the first four Vacation films. They never pretended to be something they’re not.
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