Saturday, August 01, 2015

Review: VACATION (2015)

This review made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.

Despite the knowing self-mockery already displayed in the trailers, I feel like a certain amount of the new VACATION's success is going to depend on how audiences (in the U.S. at least) feel about its relationship to the VACATION franchise - not in terms of "continuity," but in terms of a vague sense of tonal-rightness: Of the now five "canonical" films in the series, on the first and third are in regular rotation, but they cast a long shadow over 80s and 90s comedy. People who've never even seen a VACATION movie feel they "know" what one is and/or should be, and I wonder if the "danger" for this continuation is that it's aiming squarely for the darker, more mean-spirited original... which I've long suspected has been deposed as the defining entry in the series by the more sentimentally-michevious CHRISTMAS VACATION.

The question of whether or not this new VACATION is any good or not, apart from whether audiences will actually embrace it, is a more complicated matter...

The original VACATION is a bizarre animal of a movie, stuck partway between the winding-down 70s vibe of coked-out, sexually-charged anarchy comedy and the revving-up of the glossy, high-concept vibe that would define the 80s. It's inspiration was a famously pitch-black short-story from John Hughes, "Vacation '58," that became a sensation in the pages of The National Lampoon. But where Hughes' story was a backwards-looking dressing-down of the mythology of post-WWII American Nuclear Family (related in dryly unself-conscious manner by the family's young son, it ends with the father being arrested after attempting to murder Walt Disney and the family not really caring all that much) the eventual film is about the Boomers who did that very dressing-down now trying to remake the myth and failing spectacularly. 

Chevy Chase's Clark W. Griswold Jr. was a pathetic idiot, yes, but there was weird nobility in his idiocy. Exactly smart enough to know he was stupid and be constantly working to conceal that fact under quick-wit and an almost heroic degree of false confidence. He was the id of the lie that was the (then) just-beginning Reagan Era personified - the lie that if white Boomers would just abandon their "radicalism" for Fortress Suburbia they'd be allowed to remake a "real" version of the All-American childhoods most of them never got to have. His film-length breakdown as the truth of this situation becomes inescapable is the all-important theme that makes VACATION more than just a string of repeating "Well this seems pleasant... no it doesn't" setup/punchline sequences; and what makes CHRISTMAS VACATION the true sequel is that we see that theme pay off as Clark learns stop chasing an extension of that lie and build his own happiness.

This new VACATION indeed gets back to the spirit of the first: No muss, fuss, very little in the way of CHRISTMAS's sentimentality - its a road trip where everything goes wrong and that's that. The jokes are funny, the characters are enjoyable, it's got a decent energy and the gags land more often than they don't. What it's missing, sadly, is a theme to call its own: The story is the same, as is the "ugliness under the American Road-Trip Mythology" moral, but they aren't held together by anything that gives meaning to the mayhem. It'll probably earn its money back, and a few of the setpiece gags will likely have folks talking for months down the road... but there just isn't weight to any of it - a classic miscalculation in comedies of this type.

The best (or, at least, most VACATION-ish) joke hits right up front: Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) has grown up to be an airline pilot. It's a perfect gag because it makes sense connected to the rest of the series but also because it sets up his character as a separate entity from Clark. Rusty thrives on the comfort of the routine schedule, and when he learns by chance that the rest of his family (cheifly Christina Applegate as wife Debbie) isn't anywhere near as enamored of it as he is (particularly yearly summers at a lakeside cabin) it's a shock to the system; and to rectify things he goes with what worked for his own family once: A road-trip to Wally World.

If the premise has a central stumble, it's in assuming that it absolutely needed to be a road trip at all - the idea is even more an anachronism than it was in the 80s, and one can easily imagine a whole new crop of jokes could be mined from the nightmare of 21st century air travel (and also Ubers, AirBnB type scenarios, etc). But a road trip it is, and that means we're mainly watching updates to the broad strokes of the original, with mixed results: The ongoing "weird features" joke involving a foriegn rental car are mostly misses, outside of a gag involving the GPS voice getting stuck in Korean speech ("Why is it so much angrier than the others?") it's nowhere near as funny as the simple visual awfulness of the Wagon Queen; but an interlude with Griswold sister Audrey and her new ultra-rich Texan husband (Chris Hemsworth) is pretty amusing as an inversion of the Cousin Eddie sequence from the original, i.e. swapping "wealthy hyper-consuming ultra-conservatives" for "weirdo rednecks" in the "strange rural relatives" role. Funny stuff.

Unfortunately, the lack of theme keeps coming back, meaning that there's no overall meaning to connect what now feel more than ever like a lot of "and then..." beats stacked in a row. One potentially fun sequence finds Rusty deciding to take a detour to Applegate's old college, where it's revealed that her old sorority is/was a party-house and she was a legendarily uninhibited wild-child - great potential for fun with family dynamics, but instead it's just setup for an extended slapstick bit wherein Applegate attempts a drunken obstacle-course and ends up vomiting everywhere. Funny, sure, but it feels out of place in a way that becomes a repeating problem: The film is trying desperately to get back to the darkness of the original, but can't quite find the way there in a saleable way and instead settles for "gross."

Still, gross can be funny - and it's mostly funny here, especially a repeating bit where the film allows the audience to "get" what's happening to The Griswolds before they do, the standout being when they find themselves white-water rafting with a guide (Charlie Day) who has a suicidal episode mid-trip. I also imagine the "Griswold Springs" scene would've been a winner had they not spoiled it in every single trailer. On the lesser side, a series of gags about awful things happening to cows (obviously attempting to one-up the dog death from the first film) fall weirdly flat.

What's not a great idea is trying to divide the focus between the individual family members. It likely felt like a good update to give Applegate and the kids more agency whereas the original never really leaves Clark's perspective, but again: No theme. Their individual issues (Applegate is bored with marriage, the older brother is a sensitive kid bullied by his psychotic younger brother) don't sync up in any meaningful way, which is unfortunate since if they had a climactic beat involving a brawl with another family at Wally World might've had some real energy behind it. Instead, like the rest of the piece, it's conceptually amusing but lands much too lightly.

That pervasive "not enough" execution is unfortunately encapsulated by an Act 3 cameo by Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, which appears to arrive years late having not been informed of its own expiration. I won't lie - I got a little bit choked up when Clark (sort-of) saves the day by revealing that he's held onto a specific keepsake from their own Wally World journey (the reveal, complete with mandatory needle-drop, is really something) - but it's too little, too late.

VACATION is funny - exceptionally so at times, but my memory of it is already fading and I doubt we'll be thinking about it even two months from now. Whether or not that means the studio has their franchise back will be another story, but for now as comedies go you're better off seeing SPY or ANT-MAN again.

This review made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.