Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Vacation is a vapid experience. As the fifth film in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series, it feels remarkably devoid of familial connection and spirit; instead, it relies on cruelty and crudeness without a care for developing characters or an enduring narrative. There’s little creativity in its set pieces and jokes. I found myself laughing at pieces of shock humor without any substance to them, not necessarily meaning they’re funny so much as they begged me for a salacious response. I don’t find that kind of comedy rewarding, even if it is sporadically entertaining. When it comes to the summer of 2015, there have been more intelligent comedies with kinder spirits and more biting social observations: Spy was a relentless takedown of the hyper-masculine caper genre, while Trainwreck is a fiercely feminist effort that subverts the romantic comedy through deconstruction of character. Vacation, on the other hand, features puke and dick jokes as if they will never be allowed to use such expressions ever again. I’d like to think audiences know that better comedies are out there, both in terms of laughs-per-minute and intelligence.
The film focuses on Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms), the son from the previous Vacation films that has grown into his own man. He doesn’t seem to respect himself, though, working as a second-class pilot for EconoAir as opposed to one of the big-name airlines. He’s constantly reminded of his shortcomings by a rival pilot (Office Space’s Ron Livingston), and feels emasculated because he cannot seem to make his family as happy as they should be. His wife, Deb (Christina Applegate), and his two sons are bored by their yearly trip to Michigan. So Rusty thinks up a plan that feels a little self-serving but could provide a lot of bonding: a visit to Wallee World, the theme park of old, that has new rides and promises to excite everyone. So they trek across the country and experience practically every bad thing imaginable, including a vicious truck driver and bad motel experiences. They also visit Clark (Chevy Chase) and company at their bed-and-breakfast, where they are up to their usual ways.
There’s this nagging sense of familiarity throughout the film that makes it predictable and uninvolving. I’m not sure whether it’s the underappreciated female characters in the film (where Debbie is not given an identifiable career or really any character traits outside of some weak “slutty college years” tropes) or simply the triteness of the jokes. One of the film’s biggest moments involves a visit to Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann) and her hunky weatherman husband (Chris Hemsworth), and the jokes just don’t work because they are uninspired and routine. The couple makes out awkwardly in front of Rusty’s family, they make misogynistic jokes to take down Rusty’s sensitivity, and boast about how perfect their lives are. There should be some substance in these moments, but the characters are never more than cogs in the machine to move through comedic formula. Ed Helms is committed in the lead, but his role is unforgiving and asks him to make an ass of himself to intermittently funny results. There isn’t a joke in the film that one hasn’t heard before, and that’s only one of the film’s many problems. Vacation isn’t a necessary advancement of the franchise, a relic of comedy that’s lost its luster and fails to stand up to the heavyweights.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)