Vacation is the latest example of a movie that reveals all its funny parts in its trailer. It's a road comedy, so you expect the one-vignette-to-the-next structure, but when you have one clunker sequence after another, it creates a grand sense of disappointment. The sad part is it's not for lack of effort. Where the story goes and how it pays homage to the original National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) while still being its own movie makes sense. It just doesn't translate to the screen.
This is the fifth Vacation film, and given that the others were hit-and-miss, it's no surprise this one is too. The first Vacation (about a cross-country trip to amusement park Walley World) is great, European Vacation (1985) is silly and too extreme, Christmas Vacation (1989) is my personal favorite, and we don't speak of Vegas Vacation (1997). Through them all is the sense that the patriarch, Clark (Chevy Chase), is a loving father who wants nothing more than to bring his family together with the trip of a lifetime. Accordingly, this is exactly the way Clark's son Rusty (Ed Helms) approaches his family's trip in this film, as he takes his brood from Illinois to Walley World in California. To that end, kudos to Helms for nicely channeling some of Chase's mannerisms, especially as Rusty freaks out. Like father like son.
But as Rusty ventures off with wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and sons Kevin (Steele Stebbins) and James (Skyler Gisondo), a sense of desperation quickly sets in. Not because things don't go as planned, but because so little of writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein's content is funny. For example, because of the Memorial Day weekend setting, Rusty is forced to rent an Albanian family car that he doesn't know how to drive. It's big, bulky, and has two tanks of gas that run low after an hour. Here's the thing: We can't relate to this. I've never seen nor heard of Albanian family cars from a rental company, and this car is so beyond anything we can conceive that it's just not realistic. This matters when the humor is (at least in part) grounded in the reality of the characters' circumstances.
Then there are times when the filmmakers take a good idea and ruin it. When the family stops at Debbie's college alma mater in Memphis, we learn she had the nickname "Debbie Do Anything." Of all the great possibilities where this could lead, we're relegated to a Wipeout rip-off as Debbie chugs a pitcher of beer and vomits all over an inflatable obstacle course. This isn't inspired, it's gross. Speaking of which, it's hard to fathom any morons mistaking hot springs for a sewage dump. Not sure about you, but it's difficult to laugh when I'm saying "ew" at the same time.
Not everything is a misfire. Stebbins is funny as the bratty and foul-mouthed little brother Kevin, the running joke of a Korean GPS system is amusing, and the action at Walley World is pretty inspired, especially for those who've seen the '83 Vacation. Cameos from Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Keegan Michael-Key, Regina Hall, Norman Reedus, Charlie Day, and, best of all, Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo are also good for a laugh or two. But overall, it's not enough.
This Vacation is not a trip you want to take.