The original and often hilarious 1983 “Vacation” — “National Lampoon’s Vacation” to give the full title — not only unveiled the burgeoning comic talent of then little known magazine writer John Hughes and further enhanced the already established credentials of director Harold Ramis but launched the entire subgenre of the family road-trip movie.
Then its seemingly endless sequels (some winding up in direct-to-video release) did much to diminish the franchise. Even its star, Beverly D’Angelo, told me in an interview for my recently published biography of John Hughes that in the subsequent movies the cast was “dogged by the feeling we were letting everybody down, that we were not fulfilling what we started out with.”
So the new why-is-anybody-bothering reboot/rethink/follow-up, “Vacation,” released by Warner Bros., faces a low bar of expectations. Indeed critics are falling all over themselves panning the movie in comparison to the original, perhaps unaware of the equally disdainful reception critics of the day gave to nearly all of Hughes’ films.
The screenwriters making their directorial debuts, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (“Horrible Bosses”), are clearly camp followers, picking up clues for their script from Hughes’ original and slavishly copying the latest trends in R-rated comedies in their avid pursuit of crudity and potty-mouth dialogue.
The idea here is that Rusty, the son of the original dad, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase), is grown with his own family — wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and two young sons, the nerdy James (Skyler Gisondo) and his bullying, foul-mouthed younger brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins).
Impulsively Rusty decides to replicate the old road trip of his youth from the Midwest to the California theme park Wally World. Following his dad’s lead, he even rents a last-minute car from hell, a thing made in Albania with incomprehensible controls and a rear identical to its front.
While it takes a whole lot of suspended belief to accept Helms as a grown-up Anthony Michael Hall (who played Rusty as a kid), Helms does a decent job of imitating the comic patterns and pratfalls of Chevy Chase.
But here again you’re dealing with imitation, not original ideas, so you see where the problem lies with this “Vacation Re-Visited.”
There are a number of funny set-ups but the neophyte directors continually fumble them away with punchless punchlines and over reliance on grossness over comic precession.
For instance, a detour to his wife’s alma mater confronts Rusty with the uncomfortable image of her wild early life as a sorority’s infamous “Debbie Do Anything.”
While still recovering from this new image of his wife, he then witnesses her accepting a challenge from current sorority sisters to compete in a drunken fund-raising ritual she apparently dreamed up back in the day. But the payoff is simply a scene of excess vomiting instead of character-revealing comedy.
And so it continues with a visit to Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann) and right-wing, wealthy TV weatherman brother-in-law (Chris Hemsworth), a deliberate reversal of the white-trash relations in the original film.
Mann gets lost in the process but, surprisingly, Hemsworth displays fine comic chops as the strutting, self-satisfied stud who favors revealing shorts. Yet again the filmmakers overdo this gag until it’s no longer funny but emblematic of the filmmakers’ desperate search for laughs.
A white-water rapids ride with a suicidal guide to the accompaniment of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” has one of the few good payoffs. Yet a sequence involving the original stars, Chase and D’Angelo, falls more or less flat. Ditty that for Wally World itself.
Applegate never is allowed to figure out who or what her character is apart from the Debbie Do Anything gag. But the two young actors playing her sons do have moments in a reversal of the norm that finds the younger brother bullying his older, more geeky one.
Most of all though the new film lacks the original’s subversiveness. The nuclear family was then sacred but Hughes found a way to slyly undermine its conventions and mores and had the know-how to imply and twist rather than bludgeon a joke to death.
Too bad. A lot of good ideas go to waste in “Vacation.”
Opens: July 29, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production: New Line Cinema, Benderspink/Big Kid Pictures
Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo
Writer-directors: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Producers: David Dobkin, Chris Bender
Executive producers: Marc S. Fischer, Jeff Kleeman, Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Samuel J. Brown, Dave Neustadter
Director of photography: Barry Peterson
Production designer: Barry Robison
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Editor: Jamie Gross
R rating, 99 minutes