by Richie Watkins
Last Friday, I saw Vacation. As of this writing, I’m still trying to unsee it. For those who don’t know, Vacation is a reboot of the Vacation film series, started by the 1983 classic National Lampoon’s Vacation, and left dormant by the 1997 classic (at least by Monday-nights-on-TBS-circa-2003 standards,) Vegas Vacation. The 2015 film serves as more of a direct sequel to the first film. Now an adult who is married with two kids, Rusty Griswold (played by Ed Helms), wants to do something with his family that they can all enjoy, so he plans a vacation for Wally World. Of course, the vacation turns out to be a nightmare. Unfortunately, for the audience, it’s not a funny kind of nightmare, like in the original (which has the same basic premise), but the kind of nightmare that is like watching that one dude at a party who relentlessly tries to make people laugh, but each attempt is more pathetic than the last.
Vacation stumbles from one dud of a gag/joke to another. Once one joke/gag fails, the filmmakers are already setting up the next one. And the punchlines become increasingly telegraphed, so the pattern becomes increasingly painful and tiring. Attempts at comedy are done at the expense of presenting likable characters. The younger Griswold kid is a grating brat, who continually bullies his older brother for “having a vagina” and “saying weird sh**”. In one scene, this kid even suffocates him with a plastic bag! (This is all supposed to be funny, mind you). While not nearly as grating, the older brother is still annoying because the filmmakers try to give him an arc–building the courage to stand up to his brother, which happens by talking with a cute girl for a total of 3 minutes. Ultimately, the arc is pointless because the story is not about him, it’s about Rusty (I’ll get to him in a minute). Christina Applegate, who is actually a terrific comedic actress (see Anchorman) is squandered here as Rusty’s wife, whatever her name is. Her arc is that she is unhappy with her marriage, because Rusty never takes them anywhere exotic, “like Paris”, but then she realizes her husband is trying his best, so she concludes that her marriage is perfect. Whether or not this arc is good is irrelevant, because she is not a character that needs one!
Pictured: Warner Bros.’ reason you should see this movie.
Now, onto Rusty. I’ll start off by saying that Ed Helms turned in a very poor performance. Why was it poor? Because it was inconsistent. He’s introduced as a guy who tries to do good, but bad things happen to him because of other people’s faults. To be honest, this would have been a perfect introduction if that were his character. But no. In the following scenes, he is suddenly also a character who desperately tries to be like what he perceives as a perfect family, by embarrassing himself and his son by play fighting, something that he outright copies from what the perfect father does with his son. Plus, he is revealed to be a complete idiot, because he does it right in front of them after they do it; then, he steals the perfect dad’s nickname for his own son.
On top of that, in other scenes, Helms tries to flat-out act like Chevy Chase, specifically when he blows an “intimate” moment between his oldest son and his (the son’s) crush (which is, in and of itself, a cringe worthy moment). Keep in mind, that in most of the other movies, Rusty was usually level-headed. And he was most certainly not a character whose personality shifted according to whatever the joke for that scene needed to be. So, is it not a stretch that he should be different from Clark, by not being a moron, and just a guy to whom bad things happen due to no fault of his own? His goal is admirable–to become closer with his family. This goal is relatable to anyone who strives to be a great parent, spouse, etc. But the fact remains that it is a straight-up jack of Clark’s goal in the original. What the reboot does differently, though, is ensure that Rusty doesn’t actually achieve his goal. That’s right. This set of Griswolds turns out to be utterly disappointed with Wally World. So, it’s an arc that could have been purposeful, but for the sake of comedy, turns out to be pointless.
This is one frame of Ed Helms as Rusty Griswold. Imagine having to endure 24 of these a second for 90 minutes.
In the original, Clark is written with a take-it-or-leave-it comedic approach. For the most part, his performance didn’t scream for people to laugh. And by not trying, he was funny. Rusty, on the other hand, does nothing except point out the obvious to be funny. Case in point: Chris Hemsworth (I don’t call him by his character name, because he just plays himself), on three different occasions in a span of two minutes, draws very stretched/abstract comparisons of situations to faucets. This could’ve been mildly funny after he made the third reference, but Helms blows it by saying, “what is it with this guy and faucets?!”. Note to filmmakers: it’s NOT FUNNY to say what the audience thinks is funny about a joke.
How to play comedy straight:
Rusty: “And if I were funnier and more clever back then, I would’ve said, ‘Dad, you’ve gone insane! You’re yelling at your family because you’re trying to have fun as an obligation, given our hellish experiences so far!”
What irks me is that we’re supposed to be invested not in the characters, but in the events that happen to them. Most of the jokes/gags come from things happening to the characters, and that’s it. In the original, the Griswolds are likeable people, despite their flaws. It was how they dealt with their bad situations that made the movie so funny. Unlike the 2015 film, it did not rely on the absurdity of the events alone to make people laugh. And this stark contrast is crystal clear in the scenes with Chase reprising his role. His loving, caring, but bumbling and oblivious nature, were intact with the Clark we remember. And now that he’s much older, it’s understandable that he’s also crankier and even more bumbling and oblivious.
And what made those 2 ½ scenes so great (read: bearable)? No one was pointing out the obvious about his schtick, and no one was making sex/potty humor jokes. It’s like all the actors knew to just shut up and let someone who knows what they are doing with the Vacation feeling make with the funny. Come to think of it, for that reason, those scenes were The New Griswolds’ best ones, because they stayed in the background where they belonged. Given that I have not laughed at anything from Chase post-Nothing But Trouble (1991), I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable his appearance in this film was. Granted, he doesn’t show up until well past the hour mark, so by then I would’ve welcomed a highlight reel of Vegas Vacation. Thankfully, I saw something better than that.
Vacation represents everything that is wrong with modern, mainstream, American comedies. The serious moments hold no weight; the least intellectual jokes are of sex and poop, and the most intellectual ones are of meta humor (which is infuriatingly lazy); characters are incredibly mean-spirited to one another; punchlines are pathetically telegraphed; and, worst of all, it’s not about anything: it’s just a series of things happening.
Remember when comedies actually made fun of topics outside of sex and potty humor? Remember when they weren’t just cinematic equivalents to would-be comedians rehashing jokes of the comedy greats, without so much as even the concept of the reason why the greats made those jokes in the first place? 1983 Vacation was written by the late, great John Hughes, who wanted to write about how miserable a family vacation can be for kids cramped up in the backseat of a car. Chase and Harold Ramis, then, took that story and made it about the parents’ misery. Memorable elements included: the annoying, country bumpkin relatives they encounter along the way; Aunt Edna, the crotchety old woman that the Griswolds must transport from the country bumpkins to another location; being tempted by a supermodel, who inexplicably finds Clark to be attractive; and many more. The stories that Chase, Hughes, and Ramis created work because they are relatable. It is impossible to relate to faceless characters who exist only to be objects of wacky events.
Even worse, this film embodies what is wrong with mainstream films today–unoriginality. That parody of the girl-in-the-ferrari scene (from the original) you may have seen in the previews? That was straight up stolen from an episode of Family Guy.
(pause) Has that soaked in? Okay, next. That dialogue you may have heard in the previews about how Rusty wants to “re-do his vacation from 30 years ago”, and how “this vacation will stand on its own”? That was ripped off from the 2012 film 21 Jump Street.
Original (from 21 Jump Street): “We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”
Also, what’s with the macabre sense of humor? Why does the comedy have to be weird and disturbing? Case in point: there is a scene where Rusty crashes an ATV into a steer, and another steer approaches him and starts eating the remains off of him. Were scenes like this created because Hangover, American Pie, and the Farrelly Brothers have conditioned people to enjoy this trash?
Vacation, and movies of its ilk, expose what’s wrong with a lot of people’s sense of humor–they don’t know the difference between comedy that makes you go “hah” and a gag that makes you go “eww!”. (Guess which one the two videos below represent).
If you look closely at this scene, there is brilliant symbolism happening. The characters symbolize the actors playing them; what they think is the beautiful hot spring symbolizes the actors’ misconception that this movie would be the next hot thing, based upon a decently funny script they read; and the realization of what the characters have actually stepped in symbolizes the very different, final shooting script the actors read right before filming this scene.
Speaking of symbolism, let’s discuss that “climax”, shall we? The ride, for which the Griswolds have traveled over 2,000 miles to experience, symbolizes the payoff we as the audience have been waiting for. The ride gets going, they’re having fun, and we are having fun enjoying what feels like a genuine moment in the film. Then, the ride stops, leaving them hanging upside down all day, until they have to be pulled out by the ambulance. Naturally, the family leaves, disappointed. And so do we, because the filmmakers squandered the perfect opportunity (to make me not hate the film more) by sacrificing basic storytelling mechanics for another cheap laugh. And for one final insult, at the end of a slideshow of the family’s vacation pictures, as well as pictures that show the fates of minor characters, the filmmakers give us a picture of Chris Hemsworth standing on the beach, with the head of his johnson hanging out of his shorts. I would’ve rather seen a picture of the entire cast and crew flipping off the camera, while holding flaming blu-ray copies of the original. At least that would’ve been honest.
You know what the best thing Chris Hemsworth has ever done in his acting career?
Not be in any of the greatest movies of all time.
Not once was I laughing at or with the Griswolds. Throughout the film, I was suffering from watching them. Aside from Chase’s scenes (which, admittedly, were not hysterical), the only funny part was with Charlie Day’s appearance as a white water rafting guide. In fact, he delivered the funniest line in the whole movie. The problem is, it’s a throwaway line from a throwaway character (although his arc–a guy who is overly bubbly because he is engaged, who then becomes suicidal because his fiance calls him and breaks off the engagement–is moderately funny).
This movie is a perfect example of the fact that comedy and film are dying as a mainstream art. Sadly, it has already profited by about $15 million at the box office, so I’m sure there will be another sequel that no one asked for, but enough people will go see because it’s “something to do on a Friday night”. Yeah, so is jumping from a cliff into a sea of saltwater lined with glass shards at the bottom, but at least that doesn’t cost $10.
This final image is for those of you have already seen the movie and been disappointed (and chose to read my blog to reaffirm your opinion):
Sorry folks, reboot’s godawful. Previews up front shoulda told ya.