In theaters Wednesday, July 29
2 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
Early on in this reboot, an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) earnestly declares to his family (and to audiences), “This vacation will stand on its own!”
Sure. And station wagons can fly.
Face it: An update of the beloved comedy classic National Lampoon’s Vacation has nowhere to go but south. (Or, to quote patriarch Clark Griswold, “This is crazy! This is crazy!”). Though the 1983 film spawned three sequels and a kitschy Old Navy ad, no installment has come close tp matching the pitch black-humored wit of the original. And that poster art of Rusty’s family covered in poop is literally toilet humor at its worst. Still…a few chuckles can be found along this journey.
Rusty Griswold is now captain Rusty Griswold, a pilot for a low-rent commuter airline. He’s also a mild-mannered family man, living in suburban Chicago with his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their two sons. Like his dad, Rusty isn’t particularly respected on the home front and finds himself disconnected from the kids. (You would feel that way too, if you came home and saw that the youngest kid wrote “I have a vagina” on his brother’s guitar. Charming.) They’re all supposed to go to a lake house in Michigan for their annual summer vacation, but Rusty knows it’s time for a shake-up.
As Rusty looks through some old family photos, it hits him: Walley World here we come. Holiday Rooooooaaaaaoooaaaoooaaad…
Automobiles have come a long way since the Wagon Queen Family Truckster. The Griswolds head to L.A. in a blue Tartan Prancer minivan, “the Honda of Albania,” whose electronic controls include a dozen confusing icons (one of which resembles a Swastika). They have a GPS tracking device, which means no accidental detours through East St. Louis.
Not that they don’t experience a slew of disasters across America. The most amusing of which is that dip in a waste dump in Arkansas. A man who can only be described as a wily yahoo points them in the direction of a private hot springs. Debbie encourages them all to put mud on their face, unaware that it’s really . . . well, you know. (It’s funnier than it sounds). The other gross outs and crass jokes are more of the meh variety, as Debbie pukes visiting her sorority house in Tennessee and that bratty kid repeatedly calls a truck driver a rapist.
Again, nothing is going to compare to the genius of John Hughes’ original screenplay — but surely cowriters/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) could do better than having that twerp also telling everyone to “f–k off.” Couldn’t they just leave him on someone’s doorstep with an explanatory note pinned to his chest, a la Aunt Edna? (RIP).
Thank goodness for the pit stop at Aunt Audrey (Leslie Mann)’s house. She’s now married to a super-studly, not-totally-bright local meteorologist, played by Chris Hemsworth. Thor likes to walk around in his underwear, and, um, handle the remote control. In a rare comedic role, Hemsworth puts on his best redneck accent and shamelessly steals the movie. Yup, a definite step up from Randy Quaid.
But if it’s nostalgia fans want, they won’t be disappointed. Starting from the familiar opening credits, the filmmakers consistently tip their hats to the National Lampoon’s edition. It’s telling that almost all the throwback bits work. Instead of Christie Brinkley in the red convertible flirtatiously smiling at Clark, we see model Hannah Davis in a convertible flirtatiously smiling at Rusty. (The kicker is too good to ruin here). Father and son also engage in awkward sex talk by the hotel pool. (Slightly more groan-worthy).
The most respectful homage, though, is the casting of Helms as Rusty. An aimless smart aleck as an adolescent (as played by Anthony Michael Hall), he’s grown up to be just like Dad. Loving, hapless, well-meaning, clumsy, embarrassing and a guy who just wants his family to get along and spend some quality time together. (And if they could just sing along to Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” in the car, that would be swell.) When Clark (Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) catch up with the fam, it’s a treat to see multiple generations of Griswold DNA on display.
And what of Walley World? They make it there, and, hurray, it’s open for business. Indeed, the big roller coaster is an apt metaphor for the film — ups, downs and, ultimately, a pretty fun ride. Just please bring back Hemsworth for European Vacation.
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