‘Vacation’ movie review: Ed Helms is Clark Griswold in National Lampoon update

On the one hand, this Vacation is a sporadically funny gross-out comedy in line with the brand of comedy pioneered by the Farrelly Brothers; it isn’t a million miles away from something like We’re the Millers, I film that I mostly enjoyed.

On the other hand… jeez, is this a lame imitation of the original National Lampoon’s Vacation.

This Vacation is neither a remake or reboot of the 1983 film, but a genuine sequel that references the earlier film and even includes a brief cameo by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, reprising their roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold.

Still, the film treads the well-worn path of the Harold Ramis classic, as now-grown son Rusty Griswold (played by Ed Helms) decides to shake up the family summer vacation by bringing his clan on a cross-country trip to… yup, Wally World. Because that worked out so well last time around.

His family includes wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), and sons James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). The two boys get more screen time here than any of the kids in the previous films, but their storyline boils down to a single joke: older brother James is a wimp who is continually bullied by his much-younger sibling.

Stops along the way include trips to Debbie’s old college, a visit to sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her weatherman husband Stone Crandall (Chris Hemsworth), an ill-advised dip in some “hot springs”, and some white-water rafting at the Grand Canyon.

But there’s nothing here as memorable as any of the family’s misadventures in the previous film, which was tamer in presentation but an especially dark and subversive comedy that was also a biting satire of the American Dream.

This film has none of the original’s social commentary, but what it lacks in thought it makes up for in bile spewed out at the screen, in the form of vomit, feces, blood, foul language, extended dick jokes, and other disgusting sight gags. Huzzah!

I won’t spoil the jokes – the trailer does a good enough job of that – except for this one: at one point, Rusty drives an ATV through a cow, and has to wash off the gore with a power hose. If that sounds hilarious, this may be the film for you.

Despite all the nasty stuff on screen, this is an otherwise cheerful and good-natured comedy, which goes to show how much things have changed for mainstream comedy in the past 30 years. All manner of filth can be on the screen, as long as the presentation is upbeat enough to compensate.

I will give it this much: there are some laughs to be had here and there. I chuckled at a lot of the stuff involving the car, an Albanian Tartan Prancer invented for the film that comes with a number of confusing features.

But what prevents Vacation from working as well as, say, your average Farrelly Brothers comedy, is the fact that we don’t care about any of these characters. Forget Chevy’s appealing obliviousness in the original films – Helms’ Rusty isn’t even as pitiful as the usual Ben Stiller-like buffoon.

A slew of cameo roles, likewise, have shockingly little to work with. Talented performers like Charlie Day, Norman Reedus, Keegan-Michael Key, Regina Hall, Ron Livingston, Colin Hanks, and others are given a one-joke setup and then tasked with acting “funny” for the rest of their scene to be in any way comedic.  

The epitome of these scenes features Tim Heidecker, Nick Kroll, Kaitlin Olson, and Michael Peña as cops from separate states who converge at the Four Corners. These actors just shout at each other in a shockingly unfunny scene that one might presume was improvised, but I’m certain any improvisation between these actors would be more amusing than what has ended up on the screen.

One positive thing about this Vacation: it makes the earlier movies all seem better. Vegas Vacation, at least, is no longer the worst in the series.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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