It’s taken almost seven months, but one movie has finally emerged from the dreary pack as the worst of 2015. That film is Vacation, and it’s absolutely dreadful. Writer-directors Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley have created something so loathsome that each ticket sold should include a complementary shower. Desperate, hateful, and stridently unfunny, this vacation in Hell bypasses ‘lowest common denominator’ and plummets straight to zero. If you miss one movie this summer, make that movie Vacation.
The original National Lampoon’s Vacation and subsequent ‘80s sequels (let’s just forget Vegas Vacation, shall we?) perfectly straddled the fine line between buffoonery and sincerity. We followed the hapless exploits of super-father Clark Griswold in his unending quest to achieve familial perfection. We cringed at his failures and rejoiced with each fleeting victory. He was the satirical center of a universe that at once punctured the façade of the American family while still celebrating everything great about it. It was quintessential John Hughes; a blend of the profound and the profane that tapped into the cultural zeitgeist without ever feeling preachy.
The re-booted Vacation, however, is a different beast. This version has nothing but contempt for its millennial heroes, systematically punishing the Griswolds in increasingly grotesque and soul-crushing ways. Even sadder is that we come to hate these characters so much that we actual enjoy seeing them punished. Perhaps that’s the point; adrift in a modern culture that values hipness and cool above all else, we can’t allow a moment of unguarded sincerity with our family. Whatever their justification for making such an ugly mess, the filmmakers have unleashed an unparalleled assault on good taste, intelligence, and comedy in general.
The new Griswold patriarch is Clark’s (now-adult) son, Rusty (Ed Helms). Rusty shares Clark’s unflagging desire to be the perfect father, slumming as a pilot(!!) at a cut-rate airline just so stay closer to his unappreciative family. His wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) daydreams about excursions to Paris, even as Rusty is plotting their next camping or cross-country nightmare. Their oldest son, James, (Skyler Gisondo) is intelligent and sensitive (which equals ‘gay’ in this universe), and their youngest son, Kevin (Steele Stebbins), takes great pleasure in mocking his gayness at every opportunity. Kevin is the sort of sociopath that you read about in textbooks, who openly fantasizes about murdering James and only feels alive when he’s inflicting cruelty on someone.
He certainly came to the right place, as Vacation is festoon with cruelty. Yes, we hit all of the comedy “high points,” including animal cruelty, racism (Asians are a favorite target), and enough pedophilia jokes to warrant a pre-emptive Amber Alert. As the Griswolds embark upon their cross-country pilgrimage to Walley World (sound familiar?), it provides the perfect opportunity for writer-directors Goldstein and Daley to check off each ugly and unfunny bit from their soiled laundry list. Indeed, this feels like an uninspired sketch show, with each lame segment held together by even lamer attempts at cloying sincerity. Desperate to outdo the last repugnant gag, Goldstein and Daley keep their characters slathered in feces, vomit, or cow entrails for maximum comic effect. These are only ‘gags’ in the most literal sense of the word.
Even more inexcusable than the relentless gross-out humor is the ineptitude of the script. Countless jokes make absolutely no sense or, worse still, never pay off at all. Both of these comedic faux pas are perfectly illustrated by the Griswold’s new ride; the 2015 Tartan Prancer (described as “The Honda of Albania,” ostensibly because the word ‘Albania’ is funny). It comes with two gas tanks, outside mirrors that face in the wrong direction, and enough gadgets to make Nick Fury jealous. It’s an easy opportunity to satirize our national obsession with overly-complicated, uselessly-automated vanity machines, but like everything else in Vacation, the filmmakers shun the layup in favor of a 360-degree slam dunk into a vat of shit. We never learn the purpose of the two gas tanks, and most of the automation makes absolutely no sense, either on a practical or comedic level. Why create buttons that make the seats spin around or the windows spontaneously explode? If you’re going to fabricate functions a car would never have, at least make them funny and original! And how do you create a control pad that prominently features a swastika button and then never press the damn button?!? The filmmakers seem to think that the existence of a swastika button is funny enough to excuse them from structuring a proper joke. Just like prosthetic penises are funny, and Asian accents, and car fatalities, and every other joke in this unimaginative disaster.
Ed Helms seems like a good guy, and he’s been mildly amusing in other supporting roles through years, but he really struggles here. Channeling his best Jason Sudeikis from We’re the Millers (which looks like a masterpiece of comic subtlety when compared to Vacation), Helms aspires to something between smarmy and irretrievably stupid. It’s a bad combination, as this material begs for a more physically-gifted comedian to pull off the gags. Put simply, he has no screen presence. He fades helplessly into the background as the action swirls around him. It’s the kiss of death for a film that desperately needs a strong leading performance.
The other actors are clearly overmatched, as well. Applegate is relegated to reaction shots and one scene where she gets to “shine,” re-living her puke-soaked sorority days as ‘Debbie Do-Anything.’ Cameos by Vacation alums Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo are predictably flat, and both Chris Hemsworth and his protruding crotch rocket overstay their welcome. The only actor who emerges unscathed is Gisondo. As the eldest son, Gisondo brings some much needed sincerity and naiveté to this cynical affair. That James’ ultimate epiphany involves embracing his inner bully, however, perfectly underscores the contempt with which these filmmakers hold their characters. Against these long odds, it’s no surprise that the actors come up lacking.
Fans of the previous Vacation films have a horrible surprise awaiting them at the multiplex. It’s almost impossible to comprehend the ugliness of the new Vacation. The same messages about family unity from the ‘80s have been re-packaged as a gross-out comedy and tied up with a poo-stained ribbon for modern audiences. It doesn’t work. None of it works. The premise is ill-conceived, the jokes aren’t funny, and the actors are all wrong for their roles. Avoid this dumpster fire like the home-movie-from-Hell that it is.