The Holiday Road gets re-paved. Go compare…
“I’ve never even heard of the original vacation,” says the nonplussed teenage son of Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) early on in this reboot of a 32-year-old cult classic. “Doesn’t matter,” replies his father, “the new vacation will stand on its own.”
So important is this mission statement from writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (who also penned Horrible Bosses and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) that it’s front and centre of the trailer and has been reiterated repeatedly by the cast in pre-release promos. We’re not ruining a family favourite, OK?
But we also know several generations are oblivious to Chevy Chase’s original road-trip meltdown. And perhaps more importantly, the line between cheeky update and knowing reverence for source material has already been walked expertly, and profitably, by the Jump Street movies. So, no excuse to balls it up, Griswold-style…
Thankfully, they don’t. A belated continuation of the original (that ignores the subsequent sequels), the new Vacation reveals Rusty has become an emasculated suburban family man – one who now views his ill-fated childhood car journey to themepark Walley World through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. Maybe a repeat of that family holiday and a bonding road trip is what he needs to establish his authority over a work bully (Ron Livingston), instil respect in his squabbling, back-chatting sons and re-ignite the passion in his marriage to long-suffering Debbie (Christina Applegate).
But like his father before him, Rusty is a sweet fool and the 2,500-mile drive from home in Chicago to the Velociraptor Ride on the west coast will be littered with the same misunderstandings, temptations, gross-out humiliations and redneck abuses of trust – all played out in different US states along the way.
And so, starting with Lindsay Buckingham’s earworm theme tune, ‘Holiday Road’, set against a title sequence of Americana tourist-destination snapshots, the nods to 1983 unfurl. The crummy estate car, the police hold-up, the saucy minx in the Ferrari, the near-death crash after napping at the wheel, cack-handed motel-pool flirting, the visit to the awful relations, the tip of the hat to the ‘dog killer’ moment… Kids of the ’80s who grew up watching the original on a worn-out VHS during summer holidays will feel postmodern warm-fuzzies, but Vacation virgins shouldn’t feel left out.
Taking a leaf from Jump Street’s book, Vacation modernises its yuks to play as both meta and fresh, with one eye keenly on 2015 expectations of comedy. So that title sequence may be familiar, but now it’s a Buzzfeed of actual awkward family photos (that are guffaw-inducing by themselves). The car Rusty hires for their trip – the crappy ‘Toyota of Albania’ – is a high-tech death-trap, whose glitches provide many of the set-pieces (the non-slam sensor being a particular physical comedy highlight).
There’s a dodgy borderline-racist sat-nav joke, a family singalong ripped straight from We’re The Millers and Charlie Day turns up to be trademark manic and screamy. And in the wake of recent monster-hit R-rated comedies, the gags are now less innocent – they’re darker, dirtier, saucier and more gross-out.
To wit: the Griswolds take an unsuspecting dip in raw sewage, Chris Hemsworth (as peacocking Uncle Stone) flaunts a monstrous fake dick that gets a segment of its own, there’s a dogging joke, a giggle about all truckers being rapists and an animal is accidentally killed in scene that’s literally gut-busting.
In many ways, the Griswolds’ chaotic odyssey could be any spiralling-out-of-control road-trip comedy. But what keeps it tied to its predecessor is a charming lack of spite and a focus on clan dynamics that will be recognised by anyone who has ever been on a family holiday. Those endless car hours, naff destinations that Dad thinks are awesome, the delight when parents embarrass themselves on booze and that deep familial bond that means you’ll jump into a brawl if anyone else takes the piss out of one of yours.
What Vacation may lack in true originality it makes up for in heart – most of which is thanks to performance (direction is perfunctory). Helms is delightfully misguided, trading further on his doofus Office turn. What’s more, his comic timing with a feisty Applegate makes for some cracking moments that don’t rely on balls of pubic hair for punchlines (a gross-out dirty bathroom scene feels misplaced).
Their on-screen kids are also spot-on (particularly Steele Stebbins as a potty-mouthed wise-ass with a penchant for suffocation) and Hemsworth is a goofy revelation as a preening conservative sex god, despite a wobbly Southern accent. And in a brief but bonkers cameo, Chevy Chase does more with an air freshener and a guitar in a cabinet than any script could come up with. A shame then – like most comedies – that the biggest laughs are all in that trailer…