On a certain level, trying to reboot n’ relaunch the Vacation is a task pretty much set up for failure. No matter how many meta jokes are made, there’s simply no way that the 2015 edition of Vacation could match the ramshackle satirical brilliance of the 1983 original or the classic status Christmas Vacation has received through sheer annual replay value. So, if you go into the theater judging the movie against those impossible standards shaded in nostalgia, this new movie can only disappoint. Yet, we also have to remember that both European Vacation and Vegas Vacation exist, so the franchise legacy is tainted and the bar already lowered. With that in mind, John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein’s chapter in the Vacation saga slots comfortably in the middle of the series. It might not be as poignant or biting as the finest Vacation flicks, but more than enough jokes land to justify this late addition. Even if this is clearly a studio cashgrab, at least it’s one made by funny people who care more about Chevy Chase’s biggest contribution to film history than Chevy Chase.
This time Chase’s lil’ darlin’ Rusty (Ed Helms) is the head of his own family. He’s a pilot at a lame airline, but has built a lightly dysfunctional suburban paradise for himself along with a lovingly exhausted wife (Christina Applegate), a nerdy teen (Skyler Gisondo) and his foul-mouthed pipsqueak little brother (Steele Stebbins). Feeling nostalgic for the road trip he took as a teen that he forgot went horribly wrong, Rusty decides to take his family on the road to Wally World. After a few self-referential jokes about this new vacation being able to stand on it’s own from the old vacation, the gang piles into a strange Eastern European family sedan filled with visual gags and hits the road. From there it’s essentially a sketch comedy movie filled with cameos and linked together by driving sequences. References to the original movie pile up fast, yet the new Vacation still manages to carve out a cartoony and filthy vibe all it’s own. It’s as hit-at-miss as any sketch or road comedy and with a batting average better than most.
The key to the flick’s success is obviously the central family and thankfully the new filmmakers conceived and cast those roles well. Helms does the wannabe perfect father thing that Chase originated, but brings his own geeky, nerdy, awkward charm to his comedy dad along with splashes of welcome over-sensitivity comedy. Applegate plays straight woman as masterfully as usual and gets a few road stops to unload her own filthy slapstick as well (she’s got a great vomiting sequence if you’re into that sort of thing, which I unapologetically am). Thankfully the kids are also great with Gisondo getting all the right type of cringes from the audience (especially during his interactions with a teen gal on the road) and Stebbins flinging filth and aggression with worrying skill for such a youngin’. It’s a hilariously loving and dysfunctional family unit that are never overshadowed by the parade of A-list comedy cameos surrounding them.
Daley and Goldstein wisely stack the deck with the likes of Tim Heidecker, Michael Pena, Charlie Day, Keegan-Michael Key and others in tiny roles along the way. It helps to keep the laugh count high and makes the stop-and-start scene structure far more bearable when there’s a certain excitement to seeing who will pop up next. The best sequence stop on the road is a clever inversion of the poor Cousin Eddie chapter in the first Vacation (unsurprisingly Randy Quaid doesn’t appear, no doubt the result of some star-whacker tomfoolery). This time the family visit is to an impossibly rich and irritatingly right wing home of Helms’ sister (the always delightful Leslie Mann) and her big dicked Texan husband (Chris Hemsworth delighting in self-mockery). The low point is the stop off at the grandparents’ house with the inevitable Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo cameos. Chase sadly drags the whole movie to a halt by insisting on wasting time with his brand of fumbling slapstick that got tired somewhere in the mid-80s, while D’Angelo sadly barely gets a word in. It’s a shame because that tie to the original series should be a comedic highlight instead of a sad reminder of how far Chase has fallen and how inexplicably puffy he’s gotten along the way.
Though there are more than enough laughs in Vacation 2.0 to justify its existence, it would be a lie to pretend it’s even close to a perfect movie. Daley and Goldstein’s joke-first mentality lends the whole movie a cartoonish vibe that means none of the unavoidable third act family sentimentality lands. In the first and third Vacation movies writer John Hughes provided the perfect balance between comedic nightmare and genuinely sweet emotion that was his special genius. It seems effortless in his best movies, but is actually incredibly difficult to pull off (which can be seen in his worst). Daley and Goldstein don’t have that deft touch to their writing, but thankfully they at least seem to be aware of it and double down on slapstick R-rated lunacy, wasting little time on their failed emotional arcs. The filmmakers also don’t really have the sense of sly satire that Harold Ramis brought to original Vacation, so they lean more on shock than social commentary. There’s no denying that the harsh laughs and warm fuzzies are missing from this Vacation, so it would be easy to dismiss the movie simply because they aren’t there. However, if you can stop pining for the Vacation you aren’t watching and fall into the rambling rhythms of this Vacation, there’s no denying the sheer volume of laughs and goofball heights. This just might be the funniest Hollywood comedy of the summer, even if it’s not the tightest or most satisfying.