Starring: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo
Directed by: John Frances Daley & Johnathan M. Goldstein (debut)
Written by: John Frances Daley & Johnathan M. Goldstein (“Horrible Bosses”)
The “Vacation” series of movies have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Before “Star Wars,” even before “E.T.” I remember watching “National Lampoon’s Vacation” at what must have been five years old on VHS, all because my dad has a soft spot for raunchy comedy. Hell, he took my younger sister and me to see the sequel, “European Vacation,” in the theater during his day off from work, and that movie had boobs in it! The last movie I can remember my entire family watching at once in a movie theater is “Christmas Vacation,” long before it became a beloved modern holiday classic. And “Vegas Vacation,” the too-late 1997 sequel, is something I have a fondness for when no one else seems to, even going so far as to say as much to the film’s self-deprecating director Stephen Kessler, who then proceeded to tell me how that movie’s Rusty—Ethan Embry—could have been the next Leonardo DiCaprio, had casting directors given him something more to do that be “the boy next door.”
I don’t know about that, but I do know that with all the variations in quality and cast members over the years, the “Vacation” series isn’t some tight-knit epic that a recast, semi-reboot would upset too much. The movie even plays the series’ weird cast changes for laughs, opening with an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) looking through old family vacation photos featuring pictures of previous Rustys Anthony Michael Hall, Johnny Galecki, Embry, and, uh, whoever the guy is from “European Vacation.” Hold on; let me look…Jason Lively. Anyway, the film kicks off with Rusty deciding to take his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and sons James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) on a road trip vacation to Walley World, just like he and his family did more than 30 years ago. An off-putting car is purchased, weird family members are visited, and stops at roadside attractions go horribly wrong along the way, in much the same fashion as Chevy Chase encountered time and time again. And you know what? It’s pretty damn funny.
First-time directors John Frances Daley and Johnathan M. Goldstein stick close enough to the formula so the film feels like it fits in the loosey-goosey “Vacation” universe (ugh, thanks Marvel), but update the style and delivery of the jokes so it doesn’t feel like a relic from the ‘80s—meaning there are less boobs but more foul-mouthed kids and references to dicks. Helms plays Rusty as if he’s Andy from “The Office” in witness protection, and while he can’t match the simmering lunacy Chevy Chase delivered as the elder Griswold (he and Beverly D’Angelo cameo here), Helms’ clueless, positive Rusty running afoul of the universe is some funny stuff. Throw in sharp cameos from comedy ringers like Tim Heidecker, Charlie Day, Nick Kroll, Kaitlin Olson, and Michael Peña and you’ve got a road trip comedy more enjoyable than most.