While watching National Lampoon’s “Vacation” (starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as Clark and Ellen Griswold) did you ever think to yourself: “Gee, I wonder what it would be like if their son Rusty was grown up and took his own family on a road trip to Wally World?” Neither did I. But that didn’t stop writer-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M Goldstein from doing it anyway. So now we have a new “Vacation” with Ed Helms as Rusty and Christina Applegate as his wife Debbie. Surprisingly, this new iteration isn’t half bad and while it may not have been necessary the film still had me laughing consistently the whole way through.
At ninety-nine minutes the movie doesn’t wear out its welcome. It moves at a comfortable pace, never dragging, or lingering too long on a gag. There are a nice variety of random physical and verbal jokes (my personal favorite: state troopers from Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet and quarrel at the Four Corners) that keeps the movie from feeling overly repetitive and tedious. The movie doesn’t rely on the nostalgia factor as much as it could have, which is a relief considering how many recent sequels and remakes have tried so hard to wink at the audience and remind them of the original property. Except for a few throwaway gags and an extended unfunny cameo featuring Clark and D’Angelo (that disrupts the otherwise tight comedic flow) this new “Vacation” remains its own self-contained road trip comedy.
The acting is universally solid; Helms has perfected his well-intentioned, wimpy doofus persona first seen on “The Office.” He has an almost effortless ability to make you cringe with awkwardness. Applegate gets laughs as a reformed party girl who’s now a housewife (but she’s still got a wild side to her). Their two kids: James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) each have one characteristic apiece. James is junior wimp while Kevin is an obnoxious little jerk who bullies James. Believe it or not, those traits are able to sustain them for the duration of the movie. In fact, the movie overall sustains comedic momentum up until the end credits.
The plot can be summed up as: the Griswold family is on a road trip and shenanigans occur. The stakes are low-- it's as if Daley and Goldstein said, “we’re not going to try and develop characters and relationships or have much of a story, instead we’re going to tell jokes!” For the most part, that approach works because the movie doesn’t labor on for two hours. At the same time, because the film is so thin and favors joke telling over character and story it doesn’t have much staying power. I enjoyed my time while watching and then I moved on with my night, ready for something else. There’s not much to think about afterwards. In this way, “Vacation” is empty carbs: it’s quite tasty in the moment though you’ll be hungering for a midnight snack.