Vacation Is More of a Carnival Cruise Than a Monte Carlo Getaway, But It’s Still a Vacation

Photo: Hopper Stone/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Vacation is lazy, idiotic, and gross — and I laughed my ass off at it. A totally unnecessary sequel to a long-dormant, totally unnecessary series, this latest entry in the Griswold Saga — which kicked off back in 1983 with National Lampoon’s Vacation, starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo — doesn’t even try to distinguish itself. It starts off with a version of the series’ signature tune, Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” (have any horror films featured a serial killer who plays this song over and over again?), and demonstrates all the previous films’ (in)attention to production values, craft, storytelling, and visual elegance. 

This time, it’s the Griswolds’ now-middle-age son, Rusty (Ed Helms), who has to pile his family into an unlikely vehicle and travel across the country — once again — to Walley World. What might have been a scarring memory for any other family is, for Rusty, an example of the lengths to which one man will go to make sure his family has a good time. That Rusty wants to replicate what his father, Clark (played by Chevy Chase, who shows up late in a cameo), did so many years ago shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he’s clearly not the kind of guy who can think or fend for himself. An entirely-too-nice pilot for a discount airline called EconoAir, Rusty is an empty hole at the center of his family: His bored but patient wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), is frustrated at never going anywhere special, while his younger son, Kevin (Steele Stebbins), is a mini-sociopath fond of tormenting and bullying his older son, James (Skyler Gisondo), a sensitive soul fond of keeping journals, writing poetry, and softly strumming his guitar.

Like the original, Vacation has no real story to tell. It doesn’t even do all that much with the here’s-a-family-that-barely-tolerates-each-other-stuck-in-a-car-for-days premise. The road-trip concept is an excuse to string together a series of dumb, random gags, with a couple of convenient through lines. Rusty rents a special van for the cross-country road trip — a bizarre Albanian hybrid with a variety of silly features that the film can mine for comedy whenever things slow down. (It even comes with a CB radio, which Kevin uses to taunt a trucker on the road; that leads to a wholly useless truck-pursuit subplot, one whose hilariously unsatisfying conclusion I think might be part of the joke.) We also get some occasional bits of fan service for Vacation diehards, including not one, but two shout-outs to the original film’s infamous Christie Brinkley cameo.

I know that I am describing what should objectively be a bad movie here. But sometimes it’s the dumbest jokes that make you laugh the hardest, and Vacation is a gold mine of such idiocy — from Rusty’s backfiring attempts to be a wingman for his son at a discount motel’s hot tub, to a pratfall-and-vomit-soaked side-trip to Debbie’s old sorority, to a turn by Charlie Day as an aggressively cheerful river guide who loses the will to live after his fiancée dumps him just as he’s taking the Griswolds white-water rafting, to one of the all-time-stupidest jokes I’ve ever seen, involving a thorn bush and a fire hydrant. (I cowered under my seat in shame as I laughed at that one.) The film’s high point might be a visit with Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann) and her comically hunky cowboy-weatherman husband (Chris Hemsworth), who at one point can’t resist flaunting his junk in front of a clearly impressed Debbie. It helps that the actors are game and well cast: Unlike the languid Chevy Chase, Helms’s blandness is propulsive, constantly hinting at a barely veiled lunacy — he could easily be a super-nice family man or a deranged pervert, an uncertainty the film plays for comic effect more than once. And Applegate has a wide-eyed kindness that seems like it could easily boil over into jealousy and backstabbery. (She was, after all, Kelly Bundy once upon a time.)

But perhaps the best way to describe Vacation, and my response to it, is to dive into what should have been one of the film’s worst gags. (Spoiler alert, I suppose.) At one point, Rusty and Debbie, who throughout the trip have been getting frisky in an attempt to salvage their marriage, sneak off to have sex at the Four Corners (the famed spot where Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet). Now, as soon as they decide that, you know that the big joke will be that there are other couples there looking to do the same. So you sit there, cynically waiting for the inevitable, predictable, unfunny payoff. Sure enough, there are other couples there, and the initial reveal is humdrum and unfunny, as the Griswolds are spooked in the darkness by another couple right beside them. But then, the scene degenerates into something that looks like a found-footage horror movie, with pale naked faces and bodies suddenly jumping out at the camera – a gag which, while still not original, has its own kind of stupid energy. And then, it becomes something entirely different: The police arrive, everyone else flees, and Rusty and Debbie are left standing there as cops from four different states show up and start taunting each other about their respective states, until it all escalates into an insult-laden Mexican standoff with actual guns. Again, not that funny to describe, but onscreen, in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t stop laughing at this scene’s dynamic, surreal, devil-may-care foolishness. I could say the same for this evil, hilarious movie.