It’s hard to really attach a great deal of animosity or excitement to a remake of a franchise that I never had much attachment to in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I threw on Christmas Vacation one holiday season, and even watched Vegas Vacation when it was on, but I can’t say I have very extreme memories of either one way or the other. Perhaps it all stems from having never seen the 1983 Harold Ramis original for no other reason than un-aligning circumstances. Yet, here we are, with the critically savaged Ed Helms remake standing at my feet. However, nostalgia can often be the greatest fuel for movie hatred, so with none of that in my heart, was I able to enjoy this little family road romp for what it was?
Presumably taking place around thirty years after the original, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is now a pilot for a budget airline. His wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) seems a bit bored with her domestic life-style, with two feuding sons. James (Skyler Gisondo) is a sensitive, awkward boy who finds himself constantly tormented by his younger wrestler brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins). Looking to shake things up from the boring cabin they always go to in the summer, Rusty has the idea to follow in his father’s footsteps and take his family to Walley World, which involves a cross country road trip. Renting a strange middle eastern car, and throwing his not so jacked family in, Rusty hopes for the best as one thing after another goes wrong due to a series of strange encounters.
Vacation most certainly does not try to shake up the road movie formula in any real way. Sure, it’s a little raunchier than average, but as far as the story goes, it’s standard stuff. This feeling of familiarity comes mostly from our cast of characters. While Helms certainly throws himself into Rusty’s optimistic spirit, he’s not doing anything particularly special in the role. The movie can never quite decide if he’s a completely clueless guy just doing his best, or just a hurt father who wants to keep his family together. As such, there’s not a whole lot of motivation to attach to Rusty, and even less so with the rest of the family. Applegate, a really competent comedienne in her own right, is wasted here in the fairly standard wife role. She has a couple scenes to cut loose, but for the most part, she’s given the exact same set of problems every wife in a movie like this is. Meanwhile, the two kids are borderline insufferable. While both actors do what they can with the roles, they’re quite simply thin and annoying characters. James is so dweeby and borderline creepy that you almost can’t blame his little brother for picking on him, if said little brother wasn’t a near-psychopath who will likely find himself in jail in the near future. As such, when the movie is just centering on the Griswolds, the comedy is often at least a bit flat, since none of them are really terribly likable.
Fortunately, writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein almost seem self aware of this, and litter the movie with fantastic guest stars who do bring the funny big-time. Appearances by Charlie Day and Michael Pena are side splitting for sure, but the one who really saves the day is Chris Hemsworth. Given about fifteen minutes of screen-time, the ‘Thor’ star owns absolutely every second of it, tossing his voice into a thick Texan accent to play Rusty’s highly successful weather-man brother-in-law who likes to, assert himself. He’s hysterical, charismatic, and as soon as he’s gone you’ll want him back. Hell, if the movie had ended up being all about his character, I would not have complained one bit.
Daley and Goldstein clearly have a great deal of reverence for this franchise, and are trying to do their best to re-capture the spirit of it, and that much is admirable. This go beyond the constant nods and cameos too, with each scene we can almost feeling straining to make things funny, and that’s just the problem. Hardly anything here is just naturally funny, needing a situation or some other pretense to make it so. There’s only so much that a comedy can succeed under these circumstances, and this unlikeable lead cast makes sure we never get out of the ‘kind of funny’ realm here.
Vacation is far from a bad movie. There are a few bright spots of comedy here and there, and every so often there will even be something sweet that works. However, it is simply too hard to attach yourself to these people, which makes their vacation start to feel like a business trip. Check it out on home video for the Hemsworth stuff and a couple of the other fairly funny sequences, but for the most part, this is one Vacation where it might be best to stay in the hotel room.