Review: ‘Vacation’ runs out of gas long before it reaches its destination

1983's “National Lampoon's Vacation” is a film I have an enormous fondness for, and I have no doubt part of why I feel that way is because of when I saw the film. After all, I was 13 when it came out, and the script by John Hughes felt like it was shockingly transgressive at the time.

A few weeks back, I saw the film again for the first time in a while, and while I smiled at most of the familiar scenes and lines, I also saw the film with fresh eyes, and I was struck by the fact that, overall, it's a little shabby. I think Harold Ramis gets great performances out of his entire cast, but as actual filmmaking? It's a step forward from the “held together with bitter tears and cocaine” aesthetic of “Caddyshack,” but not a giant step.

As an overall series, this is about as uneven as any franchise you can name. I think “European Vacation” is straight up awful, and it makes a huge mistake in the way the humor works. In the first film, the Griswolds are victims of circumstance, constantly getting beaten down by the world around them. In “European Vacation,” they are the aggressive force of destruction, inflicting themselves on Europe and its people. “Christmas Vacation” got the formula right again, and of the five films, it's probably the best-made overall, and the warmest. And the less said about “Vegas Vacation,” the better. There's a reason “Christmas Vacation” has settled into annual rotation, and it's because it once again taps into something true about the way families work during holidays. Ultimately, this series is about digging into the comic potential of putting a family under great stress and watching how they either rise or fall based on the various obstacles they encounter.

John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein frustrate me mightily. I think they are able to build gag sequences. I think they have funny ideas. I also think they are addicted to the easy jokes and that they frequently undercut their own good ideas. Their best and worst tendencies are both on display here, and the result feels like a pretty apt summary of the entire series. Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) and his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) are in a rut in their marriage. He's a pilot for a small regional airline, and she's a former party girl who has put her past in a box on a shelf. Rusty loves and cherishes routine, and she's starting to chafe. Their kids, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins), can't be in the same room for three minutes without fighting, and overall, they are a shambles.

Like his father, Rusty has a sort of unflagging optimism that is a choice, not his natural state. He is determined not to let things fluster him, and he is equally determined to make his family happy. It's hard to root against a guy like that, and Helms really does seem to be an ideal Rusty. There's a clever moment in the middle of the film where they're looking at family photos, and we get to see all the previous Rusty and Audrey actors again, a nod to the idea that they've recast these characters every time out. There's a little too much of that nudge-nudge, wink-wink, though, and there comes a point where I got tired of them repeatedly acknowledging that they're in a movie, and the movie is part of a series. They even start to restage a scene from the original, word for word, only to interrupt it.

Charlie Day scores in a single sequence, featuring a pretty remarkable use of a Nilsson song, and Chris Hemsworth does his best to walk away with every scene he's in, but there are also plenty of sequences that don't work at all. There's an ongoing riff on Spielberg's “Duel” that fizzles out completely by the time it's over, and Ron Livingston is sort of wasted playing an unctuous jerk who works for another airline. In many places, it feels like things are set up and then just thrown out with no real game plan or payoff. Scenes cut in and out in strange places, and the rhythm of the overall film is sort of graceless and wobbly.

The biggest problem I have is that the film seems determined to push the outrageousness as far as possible, and there comes a point where it just stops working because it's all so outrageous. People and animals are killed, Rusty talks about glory holes and rim jobs with his kids, and rape and pedophilia serve as multiple punchlines in the film. It's not that I'm outraged by any of this… it's more that I'm not. When Aunt Edna died in the original, or when they play the big reveal about Clark tying the dog to the bumper of the car, those things are played as dark, sure, but in a more grounded way. Here, it just feels like provocation for the sake of provocation, to no end.

By the time Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo show up for their cameos, I was already disconnected from the film, but that scene was such a throwaway nothing that it left me bummed out as the film runs through a perfunctory final sequence or two. There are glimmers of an actual character oriented comedy here that could have worked, and both Applegate and Helms seem more than up to the task. But this particular trip down the holiday road runs out of gas long before it reaches its destination, and we're left with yet another remake/sequel/prequel/reboot/whatever that serves mainly to remind us of the best things about the original.

“Vacation” is in theaters everywhere tomorrow.