Is Vacation a Good Getaway?
I am a fan of the road movie. The screwball antics that happen when a group of people drive around in a car. Two of my favorite comedies of all time are road movies: Planes, Trains, and Autmobiles and Flirting with Disaster. The best of this type of film manages to ground its characters in a reality we can relate to so that our reactions often mimic their reactions and despite the lunacy (e.g. John Candy driving the car between two semis and turning into Satan) we know where the logic comes from, why it turns right angles on us, and how it gains comedic power.
The harder way to make this type of film is to have main characters that are just so out there we can’t actually care for them. So when they make bad choices, we think, “that’s a bad choice” instead of “oh, that didn’t work out” or even “I feel a sense of humorous dread that you will regret this decision.” To make a comedy structured in the second way requires some really good joke writing to overcome the lack of connection and it’s very a hard task to maintain that.
Vacation (2015) falls squarely into the second type of road comedy but valiantly tries to make up for it with laugh out loud moments. This feat is made doubly tough by the fact that in a year of sequels and remakes (Poltergeist, Terminator: Genysis, Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation, Jurassic World) a movie like Vacation can’t help but seem at first blush to be a cash in on nostalgia for the original despite explicitly stating this movie stands on it’s own. And for this reason I’m not surprised none of my friends showed any interest in going with me.
The new Vacation tells the story of Rusty Griswold, grown up child from the first film, who’s now a father of two boys and wants to change up his routine, taking the whole family back to the famous Walley World of the first Vacation. He’s an idiot. The opening scene shows Rusty is a pilot for a discount airline and makes quick use of turbulence and breast grabbing. I was concerned I wasn’t going to laugh at all. This dread continued into an awkward dinner scene where Rusty grows jealous of his neighbor. Sketch comedy vet Keegan-Michael Key is employed as said neighbor, delivering as phony a performance as only sketches typically require. Nobody seemed human. However, Christina Applegate is a revelation playing wife Debbie; she delivers the perfect intonation and timing as a straight-woman to Rusty’s insane, unbelievable behavior. And many of the best laughs come from her reactions to the inadequacy surrounding her.
Along for the cross country trip to Walley World are the two sons James and Kevin. James is the sensitive older brother who journals his feelings and Kevin is the younger bully who torments James by doing fun things like suffocating him with a plastic bag. The age reversal is played for laughs, some of which are big. But something falls flat, which is a good analogy for the film as a whole.
The trip entails a disastrous trip to a hot springs, a broken visit to Rusty’s sister’s ranch, evenings spent in ultra nasty roadside motels where mushrooms grow from the unclean tub, and of course Walley World. Rusty’s sister has an ultra sexy and successful cowboy/weatherman husband named Stone, who has a “package” that features heavily as he parades around the bedrooms mostly naked. Some of the jokes really work. Debbie’s attempt to reclaim her sorority youth, doing a drunken obstacle course challenge at her alma mater is a real standout moment of raucous laughter. There are a number of these moments.
The “Tartan,” an Albanian car they rent to take their trip is a running gag machine. It serves no purpose but to act as a repository of random humor. The alternate voices on the GPS is one of the better gags. So is the key fob with random buttons, one of which is a swastika, none of which lead to good outcomes. The real jokes that fall flat are when the gross out overtakes the point of the story. Like the semi-truck driver that may be a pedophile. It’s not really funny.
But that’s how it goes. Some jokes work and some don’t. The more gross for gross’s sake, the less interesting or funny. The more unfortunate a set of circumstances for people who mean well, the better it works. I remember watching Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle and thinking this is 50% the most boring film I’ve ever seen and 50% the funniest, gut-busting thing I’ve ever seen. Vacation doesn’t quite hit that level of extremes but it does waver up and down on the fun meter through the course of its full running time. So the end result feels satisfying but throwaway and reflects probably what most people expected. On the level of expectations I had, Vacation (2015) delivers. At 99 minutes it feels like 105. There are many genuine, laugh out loud moments, but the ratio is slightly over to the disappointing side. Still, I had a good time.