It's been 32 years since the release of National Lampoon's Vacation, in which Chevy Chase, as dad Clark Griswold, packed his Griswold clan into what looked like a Country Squire from Hell and sought the family-bonding experienceTM by driving cross-country to a mythical mega — amusement park known as Walley World. If you're the type of person who needed a Vacation to recover from your Vacation, your three-decades-plus wait is over: The new but not necessarily improved edition is here to make you feel either very old or very relieved you weren't around when the first one, or any of its sequels, hit. Either way, you'll need some time to recover after.
This Vacation isn't a strict remake, but more of an update: Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is the grown-up version of the wiseacre son played by Anthony Michael Hall back in 1983. Having reached the gleaming shoals of middle age, he now has a family of his own: There's sparkly, agreeable wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and eternally bickering sons James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). James is the elder, a sensitive lad who strums tranquil tunes on acoustic guitar and keeps multiple diaries full of his ruminations; Kevin is the hellion who makes James's life miserable, the kind of kid brother who deserves a smack, though James is too passive to give it.
Rusty, like his dad before him, doesn't care what the rest of his family wants to do on vacation; he cares only about pursuing an elusive experience that will be satisfying to him — in particular, re-creating the disastrous yet "fun" family trip detailed in the earlier Vacation. So he buys a hideous car big enough for everyone — an ungainly, boxy thing called a Tartan Prancer, which, Rusty proclaims, is "the Honda of Albania" — and heads off on an adventure that includes a pit stop at a sorority keg party, an accidental steer murder, and lots of strangely misplaced homoerotic humor.
The Vacation formula — this time around, particularly — is somewhat odd to begin with. Some of the humor is slapsticky and kid-friendly, like the superdumb Three Stooges moment when Rusty invites Debbie to slam the Prancer's door on his arm — he assures her that one of the car's fancy installed features will stop it. (It doesn't. Not on the second try, either.) But most of the gags in Vacation — which is rated R — involve language most responsible parents don't want their tiny tots to hear, as well as invocations — though not depictions! — of things like glory holes and rimjobs. (In one of the movie's many not-so-hilarious moments, Rusty cluelessly, and erroneously, explains the latter to James.) Who, exactly, is Vacation for? Kids will end up seeing it, of course — they always do — and it will hardly scar them for life. It's not smart enough for that. Still, most of the jokes are just too vague and unshaped to be funny for anyone old enough to buy a ticket without a guardian.
Vacation was written and directed by John Francis Daley (who got his start as an actor on Freaks and Geeks) and Jonathan M. Goldstein (one of the writers of Horrible Bosses, both one and two): It's both shaggy and slack, ambling from joke to joke like an old dude riding a decrepit golf cart. The original, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, at least offered the occasional shot of big, stupid energy — today's filmmakers may be afraid of being too big and too stupid, but this halfhearted stupidity is even worse. And it's hard to know what to make of gags like the one in which Rusty interrupts James's courtship of a sweet young female acquaintance at a motel hot tub by making it look as if he's coming on to his own son. The joke is that Rusty is just trying to be James's "wingman" and taking the wrong tack; it's not a mean-spirited or insulting bit, but it's weirdly opaque. Ditto Rusty's eagerness to explain that "glory hole" to the kids before mom Debbie puts the kibosh on it. The joke exists only to reinforce a recurring riff in Vacation, a thread of humor targeted to those 35 and above: Our kids are getting old enough to ask us about this embarrassing stuff, and golly, we're barely past being teenagers ourselves.
Of course, dads today are different from dads 30 years ago. I'm reminded of that every time I see a heavily tattooed mid-thirties guy in board shorts and a baggy Batman T-shirt, pushing a stroller: People just don't want to grow up, even after they've started making other people. Rusty looks and acts more adult than that, but as played by Helms, there's still something of the prolonged adolescent in him, just without the flippant sharpness of the young Anthony Michael Hall. It's unflattering and far from hilarious, as if the character from the original had been replaced by a hapless pod person. Then again, the seemingly endless Vacation sequels didn't treat the kids as distinct individuals anyway; they were played by whatever young actors happened to come through the revolving door. But Helms doesn't have even half the goofy charisma of Chase, and that was limited to begin with. He keeps slugging away at the material, gamely, but he's too self-consciously earnest to give in to true madness.
The best gags are the few that are gonzo, including one in which Chris Hemsworth, as Rusty's hunky weatherman brother-in-law, struts around in underwear too tiny to contain his considerable package — the joke, like the package, is big and dumb enough to work. Leslie Mann shows up as Rusty's sister, now all grown up and married to that hunky weatherman. She too is funny, and gets a few plaintive, pointed lines about how her allegedly super-desirable (and staunchly right-wing) husband won't let her work outside the household. But this new Vacation is hardly an improvement on the old Vacation, and may in fact be worse. Neither of them, to borrow the immortal words of the Go-Go's, is all we ever wanted.