Vacation (2015)

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RB score:  9/10

OK, I’ll own up to this immediately.  For me, a lot of this movie’s appeal was nostalgia-based.  I’ve so missed Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo that it was surprisingly emotional to see them appear onscreen, however briefly.  Yet, when the grown up Rusty Griswold announces to his family that he’s taking them to Wally World, adding “This Vacation stands on its own.”  I’m pretty sure that’s a strong signal that Ed Helms as Rusty, together with the second generation Mrs. Griswold, played by Christina Applegate, are making a statement that the movie’s creators are rebooting the franchise.  And I couldn’t be happier.  Carry on, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley.  Whoever the heck you are.  I’m in your corner!

The 2015 version easily brings to mind the original Vacation, as it is meant to.  It’s a cross country trip to Wally World.  It’s an amalgam of bad vacation stills in the opening credits. The influences of the late John Hughes and the late Harold Ramis are very much in evidence, right down to the curiously dark moments together with other adult references that earn this film an R rating. There’s also the family vacation aspect that lets you enjoy large swaths of screenplay on that basis, and which the filmmakers clearly hope to leave a broader audience hoping for more, so they can launch a new series of PG-13 sequels.

Adult Rusty is a suburban-geek Dad, just like his own father.  He is a pilot for a small regional airline (“EconoAir”) and also like his dad, happily married.  He and Debbie have  2 sons, the eldest being a sensitive dreamer while the younger is an over-the-top irritating brat.  The second generation Griswolds are very much like Rusty’s parents in the way they hold a believable attraction to one other, even as they might disagree about things.   In many ways, as with the original Vacation, life itself as well as vacations are obviously more about the journey than the destination.

Rusty’s sister Audrey  (Leslie Mann) has grown up to be a stay at home Mom with a baby.  She is married to a successful TV weather man, (Chris Hemsworth), living in a beautiful house on a ranch, where Rusty’s family visits on the way to Wally World and which provides as much comic mayhem as did the visits to Cousin Eddie’s place, a generation ago.  On the surface, Audrey and her husband are happy together but there are seeds of discontent planted in the script, probably intended for future storyline material.  The two families vacationing together could be one such possibility.

Another stopover has the family visiting the Grand Canyon for a whitewater rafting trip, with the always engaging Charlie Day playing the effervescent tour guide.  Just before launching the craft he takes a call from his fiancee, who tells him she is breaking up with him, and he reacts with despair and suicidal statements.  This is the Griswold family so they are completely unaware of what the audience picks up on, playing the perfect straight men against Day’s zaniness.   Here, the film’s creators succeeded in providing more refreshed comedy, as they did with the Hot Springs stopover which has been featured in the movie’s trailer and is indeed a pretty hilarious scene.  More laughs ensue when the family stops by Debbie’s old college town and Rusty finds out that his wife was once known as “Debbie Do-Anything.”

As the series continues, I think one challenge to be faced by the screenwriters is how to parlay the Griswold Vacation formula into more contemporary material.  Part of the fun of the original series was that in the 1970s and 80s, family vacations really did tend to be more adventurous.  Without the Internet for up-to-the-minute research, you often didn’t know what you might experience on the road.  Print materials and word of mouth was about all anyone had when trying to plan vacations.  America had not yet become as corporate and brand-oriented as it is today, and travel publications were only as current as the publish date.  The original Vacation and European Vacation successfully capitalized on this unpredictability of good travel information.

In the 90s the Griswolds took us on new adventures where the writers effectively adapted to the changing times.  By this time, many viewers felt they had been on the road with the Griswolds more than their own families.  Christmas Vacation flipped the formula to a stay at home vacation with relatives visiting; and Vegas Vacation (a great movie and a gem of a travelogue that everyone should see).  Audiences and critics alike were not bothered that the kids didn’t age and were never played by the same actors.

in the 2015 Vacation, by returning to the original cross country adventure, we are reminded of this adventurous feeling and the lure of the open road with its many surprises. I thought the writers/directors were reasonably creative in finding ways to meld together the generations.  But this may work best with true fans of the series,  This “old vs new” factor, may contribute to critics grumbling that the movie is contrived in places.  For example, when the family’s money is stolen, a reviewer was dismayed that there didn’t seem to be much repercussion.  I didn’t find this to be any kind of plot hole, this being the credit card age.  Rusty’s well meaning cluelessness was overdone in a couple of places but maybe that’s because he isn’t Chevy Chase.  My hopeful prediction is that Rusty will continue to find his way, and that we will continue to learn more about Clark and Ellen’s retirement years, as owner/operators of a bed and breakfast in San Francisco.

Definitely recommend the movie to fans of the original series, honestly not sure how new viewers will react.  There’s a lot to enjoy.   Supporting players are solid, including Ron Livingston as a rival airline pilot.  The single point deduction is for the writers getting a little extreme at times, which seems to be a facet of modern screenwriting.  Chevy Chase was the master of all things comedy from the understated to the physical, today’s writers could learn a lot from him.  Still, this was a fun night at the movies, looking back and looking ahead.

Here’s hoping that Cousins Eddie and Katherine return for one of the sequels!