In the trailer for the rebooted “Vacation,” there’s a scene where the perennially hapless Griswold family, headed by now adult Rusty (Ed Helms), his long-suffering wife (Christina Applegate) and two sons, the sensitive older (Skyler Gisondo) and the psychopathic younger (Steele Stebbins) lurch down a woodsy path to what they believe is a sulfur spring and plunge in, thrilled with the discovery. A few minutes later, however, disturbing things start floating up to the surface: a hypodermic needle, and what looks at first like a crumpled condom but turns out to be a human ear. Turns out, they’ve been bathing in human waste. Oops!
This may be cruel, but I found that scene an appropriate metaphor for the experience of sitting through this movie. I went in (foolishly) believing that the critics who panned this movie were being overly harsh on what was likely just a fun, somewhat forgettable summer movie like “We’re The Millers,” (another family road trip film). Right off the bat, there’s that eighties’ earworm, “Holiday Road,” that appears to accompany montages of the old Griswolds (Chevy Chase, Beverly DiAngelo, and assorted young actors playing their kids) blasting over the opening credits; there are shots of what look like normal vacation photos but many of which turn out to be inappropriate. So okay, I thought, this movie might be a bit more offensive than the original. Well, the original, as I remember, featured jokes about incest, as well as having two of its characters (one canine, one human) meet a gruesome end which is played for laughs. In the new “Vacation,” a beautiful woman motorist and a cow meet a sober end, but the difference is that these characters are benign and haven’t done anything to offend the Griswolds. So the new “Vacation” is definitely cruder, ruder and meaner than its predecessor.
Ed Helms stars as Rusty Griswold, who’s now an airline pilot, who overhears his wife confide to a friend how much she hates going to their vacation cabin every summer. He also feels disconnected from his sons, especially when a friend comes over for dinner and wrestles affectionately at the table with his child (his youngest refuses to even look up from his iPad). We quickly learn that Ed’s a nice guy but kind of wimpy (he lets arrogant pilot, Ron Livingston steal his shuttle ride at the airport) and cares about his sons but isn’t connecting with either. The two boys also don’t get along, so to correct these problems, Ed rents a foreign car and decides to drive his family cross-country from Chicago all the way to Walley World in California, site of the original Vacation destination. Yes, the place still exists, and it still has a super-cool roller coaster, which even the younger son agrees would be fun to ride. So off they go for some wacky high jinks.
Spoiler: In movie road trip tradition, the car does not survive, and the Griswolds barely do themselves. First there’s a road rage incident where they upset a trucker by implying that he’s a pedophile, and Chris drives THE WRONG WAY down the highway, though he’s not drunk. There’s a stop at Christina’s alma mater where a sorority is putting on an alcohol-fueled fund-raiser, and Chris learns some surprising things about her past. Later, trying to revitalize their marriage, Chris and Christina attempt sex in a place where all four states touch, something that’s unceremoniously interrupted. Just before visiting the adult Audrey and her well-hung, well-heeled rancher husband (Chris Hemsworth, one of the few people in the movie who looks like he’s having fun), there’s the aforementioned bath in excrement. There are also jokes about pubic hair, rim jobs and glory holes, as well as a cannibalistic cow. Plus some moving family moments scattered here and there, but they’re quickly eclipsed by all the gross-out gags.
Chevy and Beverly appear for about ten minutes toward the end, as quirky owners of a bed-and-breakfast, and give their son some valuable advice. He wants to return to Chicago early because he’s figured out that no one really wants to see Walley World, and the trip has been a nightmare. But Chevy encourages him to Follow His Dream, and so he does. It ends with room for a European sequel, (perhaps the kids will turn out to have smuggled themselves aboard) as Chris and Christina jet off to Paris. I found this prospect rather grim, if the same directing team returns.
Everyone in my theater was middle aged and probably not old enough to drink legally at the time the first Vacation movie came out. There were a few chuckles here and there but absolutely no real laughter. I don’t know why the film makers chose to go for an R-rating, but rest assured, it’s well-deserved. Crude humor can be side-splitting, but here it’s just awkward, like the scene in which the older brother finally beats up the younger one for bullying him. It starts out amusing, but then turns disturbing, and the brother’s love interest shakes her head. “What a weird family,” she says. It’s hard to disagree.