Amidst the cultural phenomenon that is Black Panther, quietly, Game Night has done pretty okay for itself (with grosses already doubling its production budget) and did well with critics as well, sporting an 82 percent “fresh” rating. Not only that, the directors of Game Night, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, have been tapped to direct the upcoming solo movie for the DC superhero The Flash, Flashpoint.
So, with the success of Game Night and as we get closer to Flashpoint (which doesn’t have a release date yet and has had a bad history with directors so far, but at least appears like it will stick this time) people are going to start going through Daley and Goldstein’s filmography. They will notice that the duo wrote Horrible Bosses and probably think to themselves, “That was pretty funny.” (They weren’t as involved with the sequel so we can give them a pass on that.)
But then we get to their feature-length directorial debut, the 2015 reboot/sequel to the Vacation franchise, titled Vacation (which is the first of the five theatrical Vacation movies to have this one-word title; the original is officially called National Lampoon’s Vacation.) If people remember it at all, they remember it as a box office bomb, but it wasn’t: Vacation grossed $105 million worldwide on a (very rare these days) budget of $31 million. It’s fair to say critics were not kind to Vacation, sporting a 26 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. And the thing about that is, yes, it’s difficult to describe Vacation as “good,” because this movie is a bit of a mess. But here’s the secret about Vacation that no one is telling you: It’s hilarious.
For me, this isn’t revisionist history. Vacation is one of the rare movies, outside of Star Wars movies, that I paid to see a second time outside of critics screenings. It became my own personal cult favorite. (Over time, I have learned there are a few of us. My friend Bilge Ebiri, a critic for Village Voice, also counts himself as a fan.)
In my opinion, it’s the second best Vacation movie, only behind the original. I’ll never win this argument so I’m not going to try, really. But I will say, yes, I know, people love Christmas Vacation, and it’s fine, but the humor relies too much on silly vaudevillian physical stuff than it does the nuance of the original film. (I get the nostalgia factor, too.) In the original Vacation, the best jokes were small, like when Rusty laments that the Wyatt Earp in Dodge City is “crummy” because he was wearing jogging shoes, to which Clark (Chevy Chase) confidently replies, “they used to, Russ.” In Christmas Vacation, the big joke is Clark flies down a hill on a sled at supernatural speed. European Vacation is a weird one. The first two acts are pretty entertaining, but then it turns into something completely different after criminals kidnap Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and the rest of the family has to rescue her. You’d think this would come up more in future conversations, “Hey, remember when you were kidnapped?” (For the record, Vegas Vacation doesn’t exist. Also for the record, Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure does exist, but I have never had the courage to watch it.)
Now, what makes 2015’s Vacation kind of a mess is that it tries to combine the subtle jokes with over-the-top comedy, which doesn’t always work. Actually, it’s biggest problem is that it opens with a terrible sequence that involves a now grown Rusty (Ed Helms) – who works as an airline pilot – accidentally groping a woman’s breasts because of turbulence, then returning to the cockpit to find out his elderly co-pilot is in danger of crashing the plane. That’s not great because there was already a lot of skepticism for this movie, then we get this opening scene and it left a lot of people satisfied with their initial judgment, “Yep, just like I thought it would be.” It’s unfortunate the movie starts this way. And, yes, there’s also a joke late in the movie about a trucker (Norman Reedus) that would have been better off left on the cutting room floor. (By the way, we need a new lazy cliché for “left on the cutting room floor.” It’s more accurate to say “deleted from the hard drive,” but I don’t know if anyone would know what that means if I just wrote that without explanation.)
And there’s an also cringe-worthy scene where Rusty starts telling his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and kids about his childhood vacation to Wally World, yet this vacation can stand on its own – which serves as a meta-commentary on the whole concept of this movie existing and it just doesn’t work; it’s too cute for its own good.
But it’s the more subtle humor in Vacation that works and works extremely well. Like, early on, when Rusty tells his family he has a surprise, pulls out the keys to a new car he rented, jingles them in front of his family, then runs out the front door. In “movie world,” this means the family is supposed to follow the father out the door. But here, nothing happens and everyone just goes back to what they were all doing like normal people – to the point Rusty has to come back in and explain what he did was meant as a signal for everyone to follow him.
This car itself, an Albanian SUV called a Tartan Prancer, is an ongoing joke throughout the movie, featuring a remote control with unexplained buttons. The best use of this is when Rusty’s seat rotates 360 degrees while he’s driving. And Ed Helms really sells the terror of his seat facing completely backward at one point while speeding down the highway.
Also, my second favorite scene: As the Griswolds are trying to find a shortcut into the Hot Springs in Arkansas, a local bumpkin stops to give them directions, all the while he has a rat on his shoulder, just kind of hanging out. At the end, Rusty asks the man for the pet rat’s name, then the man freaks out because he had no idea he had a rat on his shoulder. This gets me every time. (The problem is, the next scene is of the Griswolds mistaking a sewage basin for a hot spring, followed by poop jokes. For every five great jokes in this movie, it will issue a long clunker.)
The thing is, everything I’ve written to this point in defense, and all the concessions, do not really matter because this is the movie that features Chris Hemsworth as Stone Crandall – Hemsworth’s finest comedic work to date and probably a good reason why Thor: Ragnarok was approached as a comedy.
Hemsworth’s Stone Crandall is married to Rusty’s sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann). Stone is a local braggadocious Texas weatherman who makes constant references to faucets and feeds his cattle meat from other cattle.
He likes to walk around his home at night with very little clothing on and he loves hearing how he saves more lives than were lost in Pearl Harbor after an accurate weather forecast. I could watch a ten-hour series about the life of Stone Crandall. Every moment Stone is on screen is magic.
Here’s the thing: I don’t really care that much if you believe me! I will continue to watch Vacation every time it’s on and I will laugh and laugh and laugh by myself, knowing that you are missing out. (For the few people who already like this movie, I wasn’t talking about you because you already know.) But with the increased attention John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein are going to get directing a DC superhero movie, a lot of people are going to go back and give this one a chance. And those people are in for a treat, if they get past the clumsy opening scene and actually give it a chance. Like Stone Crandall says, “Even the strongest faucet lets out a few drops.”
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.