BEFORE: This is another film that could have helped me greatly this December with my linking - but it doesn't feel like a December film, right? It's summer, and it's time for summer vacations, so I feel good about watching it here. And this means that Chevy Chase carries over from "Hot Tub Time Machine", and I can watch the two 2015 films he did cameos in, back to back.
For me it's really the year of sequels, remakes and reboots - when I get to the end of the year I'll total them all up, but it really feels like half of what I'm watching these days falls into one of those categories. According to the IMDB, this film is simultaneously a sequel, a remake AND a reboot.
FOLLOW-UP TO: "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (Movie #357)
THE PLOT: Rusty Griswold takes his own family on a road trip to "Walley World" in order to spice things up with his wife and reconnect with his sons.
AFTER: During the 1980's, you could count on a few things, movie-wise. One was that every few years the dysfunctional Griswold's would make another futile attempt at giving their kids a dream vacation. They went to Walley World, they went to Europe, they celebrated Christmas, and then nearly a decade passed before they went to Las Vegas.
The problem with Rusty Griswold, and his sister Audrey, was that throughout the franchise, they were each played by 4 different actors (because child actors have an annoying habit of getting older), a fact which is referenced here by the adult Rusty looking through his old vacation photos. Sometimes Rusty was older (or at least bigger) than his sister, sometimes he was smaller. He was like the Benjamin Button of 80's movies. So you can't really put the four previous films into any kind of timeline that makes any sense, you just have to take them for what they're worth, or mentally place them in some kind of "story time", which allows them to exist incoherently.
For this film, they decided to go a different direction, and portray a family vacation that goes really really well. Just kidding. You know everything's going to end up going wrong, because that enables us all to laugh at our own vacation mishaps, especially when what we see on the screen is so much worse than what we encounter in our own lives, because then we can remind ourselves, things can always get worse.
Maybe it's just that I watched this right after "Hot Tub Time Machine 2", which not only completely trashed what had happened in the previous film, but sprayed its comedy in about a dozen directions, with no clear focus. This new "Vacation" film had a difficult mission - how do you not repeat the same jokes from "Vacation", or a dozen other movies about road trips gone wrong ("Due Date", "The Guilt Trip")? Simple, you write new jokes, it CAN be done.
And there's great comic timing - I don't want to spoil any of the jokes, even though one of the biggest laughs was spoiled in the trailer, and aired on just about every talk show last year - so instead I'll point out how the first "Vacation" film was all about comic timing. For example, when Chevy Chase was dancing for Christie Brinkley's character, trying to look cool and seductive while eating a ham sandwich - naturally it's only when he takes a bite that his wife announces that the dog peed in the picnic basket. The timing makes it funny - same goes for all of Chevy's bluster when he's getting ready to jump in the pool with Christie - the bigger the build-up, the funnier it is when he realizes the water is cold, and he screams like a girl.
I almost hate to break down comedy, because often to analyze it is to kill it - but damn if "Vacation" doesn't seem like a master class in the rules of comedy, at least compared to "Hot Tub Time Machine 2". You have to lay the foundation for a gag, so that when you have a callback later, it means something. You have to set up expectations first, so they can be defied later. And if there's a shout-out to the original "National Lampoon's Vacation", like the hot mystery woman riding in the sportscar, they put a different spin on it, hopefully one you weren't expecting.
Any film could show a family dynamic where the older child bullies the younger one - but to have the younger child act as the bully? I don't think I've seen that before, and the "Omen" films don't count. Sure, there are gags here that could have been in any movie about traveling - gags about the car's GPS system, gags about the tourist attractions along the way, gags about running out of gas or getting into trouble. But they all work because they're universal, and the rules of comedy are being respected.
Take the gags about the car - Rusty gets one of the last cars available for rental, and it's a foreign model that's got all kinds of comic possibilities. Compare that to the driverless smart cars in "HTTM 2", which was a set-up for a joke that never landed. Because we don't have driverless cars yet, so there was no frame of reference for the audience. But by comparison, how many more people have had trouble programming their GPS systems?
Ed Helms is a great actor to follow in Chevy Chase's footsteps, because he tends to play characters who similarly mean well, but are also ultimately clueless, before having an epiphany that everything is futile, leading to a breakdown or blowout tirade. And Rusty has similar blinders on when it comes to dealing with his kids, or how things sometimes look from an outside perspective.
Also starring Ed Helms (last seen in "They Came Together"), Christina Applegate (last heard in "The Book of Life"), Leslie Mann (last heard in "Rio 2"), Chris Hemsworth (last seen in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"), Skyler Gisondo (last seen in "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb"), Steele Stebbins, Charlie Day (last seen in "Horrible Bosses 2"), Ron Livingston (last seen in "Game Change"), Beverly D'Angelo (last seen in "National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead"), Norman Reedus, Keegan-Michael Key (last seen in "Let's Be Cops"), Regina Hall, Catherine Missal, with cameos from Colin Hanks (last seen in "The Guilt Trip"), Michael Pena (last seen in "Fury"), Nick Kroll, Tim Heidecker (last seen in "Fantastic Four"), Kaitlin Olson (last seen in "The Heat") David Clennon (last seen in "Gone Girl"), and John Francis Daley.
RATING: 6 out of 10 state troopers