In this era of incessant sequels and long-dormant reboots of classic franchises, the common response from those of us who starve for originality is to ask a simple question: “Why?” Is it necessary to reimagine past classics and update them for a new generation? Honestly, the answer is almost always “no,” although it’s easy to get tangled in offense over the notion of unnecessary and overlook the fact that all we really seek as filmgoers is quality. There are several films that may not strictly be considered “necessary,” but sometimes we just have to roll with it and have fun.
Vacation is one such movie, completely unnecessary by all logical terms, but fun enough to plaster a smile on my face from beginning to end. That’s not an easy task, especially considering its source franchise is particularly hallowed among those of us who are comedy nerds as opposed to sci-fi or action nerds. The Vacation franchise spawned two essential film comedies – Harold Ramis’ 1983 original and Christmas Vacation from 1989 (let’s just forget European and Vegas even exist). Fueled by playfully anarchic scripts from a young John Hughes and buoyed by Chevy Chase as the height of his on-screen powers, the good Vacation movies are comedy icons. Tampering with them is risky and, yes, probably not necessary. But this particular reboot is able to revive enough of the old charm – and generate some of its own – to pass the litmus test.
Ed Helms claims the baton from Chevy Chase as the family patriarch for this misadventure, and in terms of trying to maintain one’s sanity in the midst of ridiculous, constant pandemonium, there was likely no better choice for the role. He plays Rusty Griswold, son of Clark, all grown up and with a (dysfunctional) family of his own. His marriage to wife Debbie (Christina Applegate, another big casting win) has fallen into a rut, while his sons are polar opposites – the elder (Skyler Gisondo) is a bookish introvert while the younger (Steele Stebbins) is a prematurely foul-mouthed jokester. Rusty aims to reunite his clan with a cross-country road trip to the destination that started it all, “America’s Favorite Family Fun Park,” Wally World.
It’s no surprise that mayhem ensues, instantly, constantly, and often predictably. There’s a ridiculous malfunctioning automobile, except instead of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster it’s now the Tartan Prancer, or “The Honda of Albania.” There are also awkward relative interactions, this time with Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her rich, conservative weatherman husband, Stone Crandall (Chris Hemsworth, trying desperately to twist that Australian accent into a southern drawl). Throw in some gross motels, flirtations with fellow travelers, and unintended run-ins with the law, and you’ve got a film that seems to be traced over the original Vacation template.
And yet, there are occasional twists on the formula. Writing-directing duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein seem torn between delivering a wholly reverent update of the classic material and upending traditional expectations. There are brief flashes of fourth-wall breaking hilarity (similar to something we might see from Phil Lord and Chris Miller) that hint at an edgier, more subversive tone, though they are swiftly tempered by traditional gags that stick close to the formula. Once the film reaches a torch-passing extended cameo from Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, it’s clear the filmmakers have gone into full hat-tipping mode.
But there’s still a spark when Clark Griswold enters the frame, still a charge when Lindsey Buckingham’s Holiday Road is reprised on the soundtrack. And the cataclysmic scenarios, while often familiar, somehow still muster nervous chuckles. At every turn, we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and that’s a good mindset for an audience of a Vacation movie. Helms and Applegate weather these hijinks like pros, playing off the material with a knowing discomfort that can’t help but generate a constant grin. So maybe, in spite of reboot fatigue and ingrained hostility towards messing with our favorites, this movie isn’t unnecessary after all. It’s actually a worthy entry into a canon that hasn’t delivered a film this funny in nearly two decades.