When National Lampoon's Vacation first hit screens, it came from a place of deep truth, believe it or not. Even as it veered into ridiculousness, Chevy Chase was a believably embarrassing dad, though my own kids now call his behavior "stupid." Once upon a time, too many of us had had the experience of a road trip that lasted days on end and you actually had to talk to each other to pass the time.
The new Vacation is acutely aware of the original. Though it's not a remake, it kind of hopes that you don't know the original and literally tells you that this stands on its own. It's also aware of Airplane and a handful of other 80s comedies that weren't nearly as good, but the influences are felt.
But what it doesn't seem aware of is what inspired the original movie, and it's hardly the only movie in theaters with that problem. Movies today are based on movies, not experiences. The original wasn't just meant to be funny, though it was; it was also meant to be true. It was based on an exaggeration of real life (and also, magazine fiction by screenwriter John Hughes). Clark Griswold seemed insane, but he was every middle-class American Dad, this close to snapping.
But this Vacation installment makes the point that son Rusty (Ed Helms) isn't every American Dad. Instead, he's disconnected by an almost willful cluelessness. Helms is charming and has the rhythms of the performance down. You can certainly see echoes of Chase in him the way the adult son would have of his father. But there's nothing real about him, especially when the movie even reminds you that he's the fifth actor to play Rusty in the series.
That's not entirely the fault of screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, who by the way are about to reboot Spider-Man for Sony. They clearly know that in 2015, a comedy has to up the game in outrageousness. But the days of the family vacation in a crappy station wagon seem as gone as, well, National Lampoon.
Every now and then a sequence lands, and it's usually one where we can still find a semblance of reality. Charlie Day shines as a white water rafting tour guide having a bad day, and the few moments where the Griswolds calm down enough to not be cartoon characters and act like a family -- those are the funniest.
But too often gags just escalate because the directors, also Daley and Goldstein, don't seem to know what else to do. Characterization too often relies on exposition instead of actual behavior. We know that Chris Hemsworth's clueless and incredibly masculine Texas weatherman is very, very politically conservative, because other characters describe him that way.
But nothing in his scenes would give you a clue why that has any kind of impact on the story, unless it's that he's clearly wealthy and clearly sexist, but conservatives don't hold a monopoly on either status. Audrey (Leslie Mann) still seems pretty happy with him. Though some cracks start to show, the story moves on and drops it. Apparently they even have a baby together, because she's holding one in her last scene -- but no one talks about it before or after.
Really, the only joke that the movie knows what to do with about Hemsworth is that he's well endowed. In that case, we probably would have been okay if they'd told instead of showed there.
Otherwise, Vacation follows a lot of the same beats as the original, by design. Rusty realizes that his family is slipping away, so he wants to do what his dad did for him -- take the family to Wally World, which is of course in Southern California and NOT Florida.
At least his family is different than the original. His wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) dreams of going to Paris, and at least at first seems happy but bored with her life. She also has a dark past which makes one wonder just how clueless Rusty actually is -- and never really seemed to be when he was a kid played by Anthony Michael Hall.
Rusty's kids are also at least the beginnings of interesting characters. The older boy James (Skyler Gisondo) has the soul of a poet, and the path of utter cluelessness of his father. He's terrorized by his younger brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins), and at least their relationship has an arc even if it feels truncated.
And don't worry, Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo appear, too, which is a nice nod and a jolt of energy that Chase can still find good phyical bits. When they roll out the Family Truckster, well, it just makes Rusty's Albanian Prancer pale in comparison.
As also has to happen in modern comedies, this is actually pretty packed with clever cameos that are actually well performed so could possibly resonate past the actors' pop culture moments. (I can't spoil the best one -- but it is a great way to play off the actor's best known role.)
So it has its moments, just like a family vacation. But also like a family vacation, Vacation has long bouts of tedium, a couple of moments of being utterly disgusting, and is probably not as memorable as the filmmakers would like.