‘Vacation’ Review: All I Never Wanted
Say what you will about a broad comedy – and believe me, I’m about to – but at least it’s honest. A broad comedy only exists to make you laugh, so if it makes you laugh it doesn’t matter whether the damned thing has a decent plot, relatable characters and a theme that doesn’t make you question whether or not there’s any good left in the universe. If you laugh, and laugh a lot, the film has done its job.
So when a film like Vacation comes out, and tosses gags into the audience like condoms at a frat party, it’s a little disappointing to discover that only three of them make you laugh. This film has wall-to-wall jokes for 99 minutes, and three laughs total. Franklin Delano Roosevelt served more terms as president than Vacation has laughs. Lake Placid has more sequels than Vacation has laughs. There were more seasons of the 1980s robot sitcom Small Wonder than laughs in the movie Vacation.
Granted your mileage may vary, and watching Christina Applegate and Ed Helms smear poop on their faces might be just the comedic salve you are looking for on a hot summer day. I cannot speak to your tastes, sir or madam. I can only say that a curious concoction of cheap shots, overextended punchlines and setups with no discernible conclusion make for a pretty disappointing comedy experience, and that the three genuinely funny gags – involving a trucker, the Grand Canyon and The Four Corners Monument, respectively – all take place near the end of the film, which makes our odyssey to amusement almost as interminable as a cross country road trip with a family like the Griswolds.
Ed Helms plays Rusty, the grown up son of Clark and Ellen from the original Vacation movies, who decides to take his family on an impromptu trek to Wally World. He packs his wife (Applegate), and two sons (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) into a rented Tartan Prancer – an Albanian station wagon with a suspicious swastika button, which might have been funny had it ever been pressed – and off they drive to one “wacky” situation after another, learning valuable lessons along the way, mostly about the necessity of beating people up who you don’t like very much.
The episodic nature of Vacation means that the scenes that do make you laugh don’t last very long, and the scenes that don’t pile up quickly. Rusty’s attempts to compete in manliness competitions with a father of the year neighbor (Keegan Michael-Key) and a comically endowed brother-in-law (Chris Hemsworth) are simplistic and dull, and they repeat the same joke over and over again in rapid machine gun fire, so that if even you do chuckle once in a while the film swiftly hammers it out of you.
But one must take a moment, when all is said and done, to ponder the perpetual plight of the Griswolds. They are a pod of poor bastards, beset on all sides and at all times by the black, tone deaf practical jokes of fate. Learning as we do now that the Griswold family luck extends via blood and mere proximity, we can extrapolate that the very existence of these hapless boobs is one of constant siege and terror. Their victories are minor and usually evaporate quickly. Their plight is so pathetic and constant that they become a great American tragedy: an outwardly idyllic family whose efforts to enjoy an uncomplicated suburban dream are punished at every turn, and who are probably perilously close to madness and self-destruction.
The issue isn’t necessarily whether or not the individual jokes work. Timing isn’t everything. It could be argued that Vacation isn’t even a comedy. It is a catalogue of victimization, a road map of pain, a desperate cry for help. Maybe laughing three times was too much. Maybe this depressing saga warrants more pity than peals. Or maybe this broad comedy just doesn’t work broadly enough, and we should all spend our hard-earned summer vacations doing anything else.