Everything that’s old is new again. The trick in Hollywood now is not the remake or sequel or even reboot. The ‘soft reboot’ allows you to maintain that important brand recognition and continuity with the original films that fans love while also picking and choosing what is canon. Here Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) decides to take his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and sons on a vacation to Walley World, inspired by the memory of his father Clark in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation. Of course in the previous films the vacation always goes horribly wrong, but this doesn’t deter Rusty. Why would it, when a new franchise hangs in the balance?
Vacation tries to stand on its own two feet (National Lampoon, absent from the title, only avoided bankruptcy through the rights fees from this film). It even attempts a meta 21 Jump Street style joke, the only of its kind in the film, about the “new” vacation requiring no foreknowledge of the “old” vacation. Otherwise this is everything you expect from a Hollywood comedy in 2015. The gross-out humour is over-the-top, if a little illogical (the Griswolds don’t notice they’re smearing shit on themselves until Kevin finds a discarded needle?). As is tradition, there are a multitude of bit-parts from recognisable TV comedians that give the film the pace of a sketch show. Some land their one-joke characters while others don’t, but at least they’re over quickly.
It’s in the dynamic between the sons that Vacation is at its darkest. Kevin (Steele Stebbins) tortures his sensitive older brother James (Skyler Gisondo) relentlessly; he’s anarchic, violent, reprehensible, and yet very fun to watch. Elsewhere the gags are painful in a bad way. Rusty rents a car from Albania and of course it’s weird and wacky with its two gas tanks and extra wing mirrors and remote control and GPS with different languages (oh those Eastern Europeans, what will they think of next?). A bizarre amount of time is devoted to this one joke that wasn’t that funny to begin with.
And just around the corner there’s that all-consuming warm glow of nostalgia. The third act especially is bogged down with the obligatory callbacks and cameos from Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo of the original Vacation films, leading to an emotional resolution where the family we’ve all seen hating each other realise that hey, actually, we kinda like each other. This note of sentimentality is soon spun in a cynical direction, but ultimately with the same result: the fractures in the supposedly ideal American white suburban nuclear family that have been widening over the course of the film are easily plastered over. It’s all a little too manufactured, something that’s stifling for great comedy.