The great American family road trip seems, in the 32 years since we first met the Griswolds, as antiquated a concept as ever. Middle class families fly now — device enabled, efficiency obsessed and always aware of the outside world.
Families flew in 1983, too, of course. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” actually begins with a bit of a debate about air versus ground, but road trips back then, even cross-country ones, weren’t so out of the question for a family of four, especially when they had two weeks to do it.
There’s beauty and humor, probably, in the ways families travel now, but “Vacation,” a spiritual and literal continuation of what John Hughes and Harold Ramis imagined three decades ago, isn’t interested in the now of it all.
Rather, “Vacation” is an over-the-top, often hilarious homage to the original from the earnest and talented writing-directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. It’s also completely divorced from the reality that made the first so perfect.
In 2015, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is grown and living in the Chicago suburbs with his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). They’re middle class in the way that all families are middle class in the movies these days — you wouldn’t know it from the house, the clothes, or their choices. Their life looks as genuine as a stock photo.
They vacation annually at the same cabin, but Rusty realizes the routine has become a rut. To shake things up he decides to recreate his own childhood trek to Wally World, leading to the introduction of the movie’s best long-running joke: The Tartan Prancer.
It’s a (fictional) boxy, Albanian rental car with cup-holders on the outside, suicide doors, two gas tanks and an identical front and back that deserves its own billing.
At first it seems like a miss. It’s too ostentatious with its oddities and elaborate key device featuring cryptic symbols on each button (a rocket ship, a top hat, a muffin, and a swastika, to name a few). But then we see the bizarre vehicle in action, and watching each function come alive is a treat. The moments are crafted with invigorating imagination, care, and perfect goofiness.
It’s almost enough to upstage the actors — who are fun to watch, even if they’re as broadly drawn as a sitcom family. The Griswolds of ’83 seemed like people you might know. These are entertaining caricatures.
Still, there is pleasantness to the family dynamic, like when Rusty (a blank situational slate made passable by Helms’ wide-eyed charm) attempts, quite sincerely, to get everyone to sing along to Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.” It doesn’t, however, extend to the revelation of Debbie’s “do anything” sorority past, an odd and unsuccessful tangent meant to give Applegate something more physical to do. It falters when you realize the joke is just falling and puking.
Everything is done all-out, and there’s a charm in that even when it doesn’t quite work.
“Vacation” is an unabashed exercise in excess. It moves quickly, it’ll keep a smile on your face (beyond the contents of Chris Hemsworth’s underwear) and it will draw out hearty laughs along the way. Daley and Goldstein have gotten the manic, screwball tone down to a near-science.
But in packing every other moment with something wild and anchoring it with a pointless arc about Debbie and Rusty’s marriage, “Vacation” has diverged from the simple saneness and sophisticated, of-its-time satire of the first. They’re in different leagues.
Don’t be fooled by a brief appearance by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, either. This “Vacation” is not the real thing. And yet, saccharine can be sweet and satisfying in its own way.
“Vacation,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association, for “crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity.” Running time: 99 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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