Rusty Griswold, looking very little like he did when he first appeared as a gawky 14-year-old in 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, stands before his wife and children in this fifth film in a series that hasn’t seen a new entry in more than 18 years, announcing a shakeup of the family’s stale annual trip to a cabin in the woods.
“Guys, I have exciting news,” beams the regional pilot for low-rent airline Econo-Air. “My trip to Walley World when I was a kid was the best time I ever had,” he says, telling them of his intention to drive them 2,000 miles from Chicago to the fictional California theme park where his father, Clark, experienced a hilariously criminal meltdown during the climax of the ’83 classic.
“So, you just want to redo your vacation from 30 years ago?” asks Rusty’s bewildered wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), who’d rather take the same old boring trip to the country than be stuck in a car with screaming kids for two weeks. “Don’t you think that’s gonna be kind of a letdown?”
“No, no, no,” he protests. “We’re not redoing anything. This will be completely different. For one thing, the original vacation had a boy and a girl; this one has two boys,” he says, looking over at his son James (Skyler Gisondo) and the teenager’s younger brother, Kevin (Steele Stebbins), adding, “I’m sure that there will be lots of other differences.”
The boys aren’t thrilled, either. “I’ve never even heard of the original vacation…” James says.
“Doesn’t matter!” Rusty excitedly tells them during his winking meta-monologue. “The new vacation will stand on its own.”
If only. This big-screen directorial debut by writing partners John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (the screenwriting duo behind the two Horrible Bosses “comedies”) is yet another of this summer’s films—like Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys—that trades in nostalgic callbacks to the superior first films in their respective series while disregarding the sequels that came after. Little more than big-budget fan fiction, each of these films replicates what people liked in the originals, without understanding that what audiences really responded to was the originality. Recasting key roles (disastrously, in the case of the latest Terminator) only reinforces the fact that you’re watching a bigger, louder knockoff.
Which isn’t to say that Ed Helms is a bad choice for Rusty, who, like his sister Audrey (Leslie Mann), has been played by different actors (Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki and Ethan Embry) in each film. The pinch-hitting co-star of The Hangover movies and TV’s The Office becomes the lead batter in this cross-country drive, and he does a fine job of playing Rusty’s father’s son.
There wasn’t an ounce of cynicism in Chevy Chase’s portrayal of family patriarch Clark Griswold in the original film, which featured an early, semi-autobiographical script by the late John Hughes and was helmed by late actor/director Harold Ramis. Chase and Beverly D’Angelo (playing Clark’s understanding wife, Ellen) are the only actors who appear in each of the Vacation films, and the loving, eternally optimistic, woefully mediocre man who truly believes in the American Dream has successfully passed these qualities (for better or worse) on to his son.
Like his dad, Helms’ Rusty is a decent, put-upon man who provides a suburban life for his wife and kids, but who risks going off the deep end in his quest to do something he blindly sees as good for his family. How else to explain Rusty’s inscrutable decision to travel back to Walley World, which his father once saw as a quest. Toward the end of Clark’s earlier journey, he famously raged at his family: “I think you’re all fucked in the head! We’re 10 hours from the fucking fun park and you want to bail out! Well, I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest! It’s a quest for fun! I’m gonna have fun, and you’re gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun, we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes!”
Now that’s a monologue, minus the winks that are this film’s stock-in-trade. Just look at the names of Rusty’s kids: Kevin, James. I can’t be the only one to think that it’s not a coincidence that the latest additions to the Griswold clan combine to form the name of a lazy comic actor who’s appeared in not one, but three of the worst films of the year: Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Little Boy and the current box office bust Pixels, yet another film that fails with its reliance on nostalgia.
Mind you, the movie containing Rusty’s quest isn’t as dumbfoundingly awful as the stinkers mentioned above, and there are sporadic laughs and off-the-roadmap surprises in store—if you haven’t seen the ubiquitous trailers and TV spots for the film.
Now if only there were a way to take a vacation from ruinous marketing…
Starring Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Charlie Day, Catherine Missal, Ron Livingston, Keegan-Michael Key, Regina Hall, Emyri Crutchfield, Alkoya Brunson, Nick Kroll, Tim Heidecker, Kaitlin Olson, Michael Peña, Hannah Davis, David Clennon, Colin Hanks, Kirstin Ford, Ethan Maher, Beverly D’Angelo and Chevy Chase. Written by Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley, based on characters created by John Hughes. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein. At Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.