Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Movie review: Vacation

Late last night on impulse, I went to see Vacation. It was pretty much exactly what I expected.

I had very low expectations going in, but overall, I enjoyed it. It had some laugh-out-loud (and even a few genuinely affecting) moments. I would watch it again. But I don’t see myself plunking it on my shelf next to the well-worn copies of its predecessors.

Much like the Footloose remake a few years ago, Vacation can’t decide if it’s a reboot or a straight remake. It’s not confident enough in its story to avoid wedging in distractingly forced callbacks to the original film.

And yet, those callbacks serve a purpose: They remind us that these are the Griswolds, because frankly, it’s easy to forget. Vacation is serviceable as a standalone comedy, but as a sequel it feels less like a continuation and more like a mockup from a Tosh.0 Web Redemption.

Further distancing this entry from the canon is the film’s tone. For all its raunchiness and weird-people vignettes, Vacation is mere baby steps from being Harold & Kumar Go To Walley World. Vacation’s predecessors had their share of raunch, but the level shown here suggests the filmmakers thought ratcheting it up was the only way to add relevance to the franchise. It overcompensates on that front, at times literally.

Vacation’s plot involves Rusty Griswold driving his family to Walley World, aiming both to shake up his family’s annual vacation (which is always to the same cabin that his wife secretly hates) and to recapture the wonder of his own childhood (sans Edna-deaths and hostage-taking, presumably).

That would seem to sufficiently ground the film in the Vacation canon, but (spoiler alert) the family winds taking the Wagon Queen Family Truckster to Walley World after their rented minivan explodes. They get the car from Clark Griswold in San Francisco, in an admittedly funny scene where Clark accidentally opens the wrong garage door to reveal a Nissan minivan before revealing the Truckster. (“Can we take the Nissan instead?” Russ asks. Clark: “No.”)

I say this as a lifetime fan of the metallic-pea station wagon: That scene jumped the shark. The whole point of that car’s existence in the first film was that it was an ugly, over-the-top, rattletrap parody of a wagon that Clark didn’t even want, and that barely held together long enough to get the Griswolds halfway through their trip. The last slide of the first film’s credits pointedly shows them flying home, and none of the previous sequels ever mention the car.

So why would Clark have one lying around in 2015? Judging by its looks, it’s a different car than the one he wrecked (and the bodywork only loosely approximates the original, as if it was built by a fan, which it might have been). But why, then, are its hubcaps missing? Why, after what Clark went through with his Truckster, would he entreat his son to drive the family in one halfway across California after what they’ve already been through with their own inferior car?

The answer, of course, is fan nostalgia. There was no reason in the Griswold universe for that chain of events to happen. But the filmmakers think we want to see the Truckster. Maybe we do. But it also makes that turn of events incredibly forced.

Still, that’s more forgivable than Vacation’s worst sin: flimsy character development. They’re pretty much Griswolds in name only. I never felt like I was watching the same family from the other films — which is saying something, considering how the kids were different in every one. That mattered less when Clark and Ellen anchored the action. Centering a movie around Rusty is hurt by his comic lack of continuity. (This is alluded to early on, when Rusty scrolls through family photos of previous vacations.) Here, he’s played by Ed Helms. Great actor. But in a film that tries so hard to be the heir apparent to the 1983 original, his contrast with Anthony Michael Hall is all that more obvious.

Astonishingly, the non-Griswold feel extends to Clark and Ellen. They have little to do and make the least of it. They have funny lines, but not “Hey, it’s us” lines. No “Sparky” or “Good talk, son.” No hilarious outbursts from Clark. It didn’t help that the elder Chicagoans are now running a bed-and-breakfast in San Francisco, which is never set up or explained. They’re just there all of a sudden. They could have been swapped out with very little explanation. But they, like the car, are there solely for the audience.

It’s even worse for Audrey, previously one of the series’ better-developed characters. She suffers the double-whammy of being almost completely forgettable and being played by Leslie Mann, who is hard to like in anything. Even when we sympathize with her for wanting a job and thus an identity (a compelling plot point dropped very quickly, as they so often are here), she seems less like an old friend and more like Leslie Mann filling the Leslie Mann quota. If she and Rusty had any meaningful interaction in this one, I’ve forgotten it. For all of her value here, Audrey could have been jettisoned entirely. Make Chris Hemsworth a single, faraway family friend, and the scenes play out nearly identically. (I found myself mentally rewriting many scenes while watching. Can’t you tell?)

There are also three versions of "Holiday Road." Nooo-O-o-ooo-O-ooo-O-ooo-o. Overkill, ooo-O-o-ooo-O-ooo-O ... (guitar solo)

All of that said, there is a lot to like about Vacation. Rusty’s two sons play off each other very well in terms of both rivalry and love (reminding me of my younger days with my own brother). Christina Applegate delivers a strong performance as wife Debbie, giving it all even in her stupidest scenes. Chris Hemsworth absolutely steals the show as a rich weatherman (are they rich?) and all-around man’s-man. The budding teen romance between the older Griswold son and a girl he keeps running into is a sweet and realistic one that reminds me of similar infatuations at that age. The scene at the Four Corners where four cops bicker over jurisdiction was inspired. Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, Keegan-Michael Key and Nick Kroll came to play. The scary, unseen trucker recalls the Steven Spielberg classic Duel, albeit with a comic twist.

Quite possibly my favorite scene was when Russ, trying to anonymously chat up his son to his girl pal at the motel hot tub, unintentionally comes off as a creepo. (“You want me to call the cops?” she whispers nervously.) The scene with Applegate’s book (turns out she’s not reading The Help) is genuinely moving. I also really liked the Prancer minivan and wished they’d done more with its absurd features. To say nothing of Walley World, which (spoiler alert again) clearly needs another midsummer, two-week renovation.

Vacation is the literal Rocky V of the franchise. It actually views better if you pretend it’s a ripoff. Still, it’s better than it could have been, so give it credit for that.

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