Published Jul 29, 2015There's something strangely comforting about the transient nature of a road trip comedy like Vacation that tosses off its comic set pieces with alacrity. If you don't like one gag, no matter — the next will be along shortly and maybe that one will bring a laugh. Borrowing its episodic structure, profane spirit and basic plot from the original 1983 comedy that first introduced the film world to the hapless Griswold clan, this modern take has enough funny moments to at least justify its existence in the crowded realm of unnecessary sequels, remakes and reboots.
Ed Helms steps into the familiar role of patriarch Clark's grown-up son Rusty, who's been played over the years by a plethora of actors including Ethan Embry in Vegas Vacation and The Big Bang Theory's Johnny Galecki in Christmas Vacation. When he learns that his family feels their annual retreat to a remote cabin has become more of an unfortunate chore than a fun getaway, Rusty decides to shake things up and take the group on the same long car trip to the amusement park Walley World that he once made in his youth (back in that first film).
With his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and two kids — the older and more sensitive James (Skyler Gisondo) and younger and more aggressive Kevin (Steele Stebbins) — in tow, Rusty hops in the unique Albanian car he's procured for the occasion and hits the road. Predictably, the trip is fraught with hijinks and peril at every turn, as their escapades yield sequences of varying levels of hilarity.
For instance, while a visit to Debbie's old alma mater in which Rusty learns that his wife was a legend at her fraternity gives Applegate a welcome opportunity to show off her comic chops, there are others, like a dip in some hot springs that takes a revolting turn, that would be predictable gross-out humour even if the scene hadn't already been ruined in the trailer along with a lot of the film's best jokes.
The comedic guest stars that show up at every turn are a similarly mixed bag. Leslie Mann and Chris Hemsworth have a lot of fun as Rusty's sister and her right-wing husband, though an interminable joke about his large penis continues on long after it's ceased to be amusing. Charlie Day pops up to do his usual high-pitched shtick, Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo are given a couple scenes to reprise their iconic roles and one memorable moment brings together a group of comedy's brightest stars but then seems satisfied just to have them there, rather than really give them anything to do.
The movie's biggest asset, though, is Helms at the centre of it all. He has an endearing quality that lends an unexpected sweetness to scenes like the one where he's asked to explain to his son what a rim job is but doesn't quite have the first idea himself. His struggles with a stagnant marriage are ultimately a rote affair, but his harried attempts to keep everything together in the midst of chaos make it easy to root for him. Sure, he may not be part of the most wholesome bunch, but they're still family.