New 'Vacation' finds Rusty Griswold, and a franchise, all grown up

Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, well-known comedy actors posing in a fake marriage, were trying to protect their two fake sons from a fake tsunami.

The quartet, joined by Charlie Day as a volatile fake river-rafting guide, were in a boat here one morning last fall at a small water park. They were contemplating how they'd gotten themselves into this vacation situation and, more important, how they'd get themselves out.

A portable geyser doused them with water. A raft rocked angrily as burly men pulled on wires to tame it. Oars and other navigation devices were as absent as a Rand McNally map at a Google convention.

"You're our only hope," Helms wailed to Day. A moment later, a director yelled "cut," and the group emerged from the boat — life-jacketed, wet and in Applegate's case, visibly queasy — to join crew members on dry land.

"Just like being on a real vacation," Helms said, flashing his square grin, as he bounded over to a set of monitors in socks and slippers, waving aside a dry sweatshirt the way a tennis player shakes off a new ball.

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The actors were inhabiting the Griswolds, a name with plenty of cinematic currency thanks to the landmark 1983 comedy "National Lampoon's Vacation" (it featured John Hughes as writer, Harold Ramis as director and Chevy Chase as star).

A subversive and innuendo-laden movie that sent up the nuclear-family entertainments of the 1950s, "Vacation" became a huge hit upon release, then spawned four sequels and countless imitators. One is hard-pressed to think of a contemporary family-centric comedy — "RV," "Are We There Yet?" and countless others — that doesn't have a little Griswoldian DNA in it.

In its episodic tale of a man bent on taking his wife and two children to Southern California's Walley World come hell or dead relatives, the original "Vacation" served as a cinematic mirror. Through the Griswolds' roadside disasters, we came to understand a bit of ourselves, seeing in their trashed Truckster and glazed eyes the misguided optimism of the American vacation psyche.

In the new movie "Vacation" — directed by first-timers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the writing duo behind "Horrible Bosses" — young son Rusty Griswold is all grown up and eager to re-create his familial past. A Chicago-based pilot and married father of two, the character who was once an Anthony Michael Hall imp is now an Ed Helms man, prone to Ed Helms stumbles.

Rusty decides, after an emasculating dinner with a neighbor, that he too wants to take his wife, Debbie, and two children on a road trip, in the hope of jolting life into his marriage and earning the respect of his two sons. Rusty's grown-up sister Audrey, Dana Barron in the original, is also back, this time as a free-wheeling, free-loving Leslie Mann.

As a spiritual sequel to the first film, "Vacation," which Warner Bros. will open on July 29 after moving it from the fall, is the rare comedy to pick up a thread three decades later. Chase and on-screen wife Beverly D'Angelo also cameo, their first big-screen appearance as Clark and Ellen Griswold in 18 years. It is an unusual undertaking — an attempt, in this age of superhero shared-universes, to expand a mythology in a much lighter genre.

If it's to succeed, though, the trailblazing property must find a new path in the seen-it-all comedy world of 2015. And it must simultaneously please — or at least not offend — a generation that treats the original as sacred text.

"We've been approaching this," Goldstein said, "like a kid whose dad gave him keys to one of the most beloved cars ever made." As this is a "Vacation" movie, that car will inevitably get pulverized.

An extended 'Vacation'?

Several years ago, the executives at Warner Bros. and its New Line division met to contemplate the future of the "Vacation" property, which was part of the Warner library. The group couldn't decide whether it was worth extending a franchise that hadn't seen a hit since the 1980s. All three movies that decade were successful, but the last theatrical effort, 1997's "Vegas Vacation," was a dud.

Some Warners executives, under then-production chief Jeff Robinov, were unsure, worried the title lacked brand recognition among a younger audience. But control of the project was eventually passed to New Line President Toby Emmerich, who secured a green light. Sort of. After filming was ready to move ahead in spring 2013, the movie was again put on ice over audience and script concerns, before finally starting up in several Southeastern cities about 18 months later.

"There are people who love the original, there are people who don't know the original, and there are people who just don't like sequels," Emmerich said. "We discussed that a lot and realized that if we made a movie that worked in 2015, none of that would matter."

A meta version of that conversation, in fact, makes its way into the film. "I don't even remember the original vacation," teenage older brother James (Skyler Gisondo) tells his nostalgic dad, double entendre (vacation/"Vacation") intended. "This vacation must stand on its own," Rusty replies.

The scene attempts the increasingly popular move of responding to audience skepticism — and poking fun at the overheated nature of the debate — within the confines of the movie itself. "It's 'You guys know that we know what this is, so now that we acknowledged that, let's treat this as its own movie,'" Daley said.

"We were expressing our own concerns and insecurities, really," added Goldstein.

Goldstein (quieter, droller) and Daley (ebullient and, as the star of former cult hit "Freaks and Geeks," acquainted with the appeal of '80s nostalgia) didn't initially intend to direct. ("If we knew we wouldn't have made it so complicated," Goldstein quipped.) The pair's disparate ages do make for interesting perspectives: At 46, Goldstein is 17 years older than Daley, who was born the same week "National Lampoon's European Vacation" came out.

Both, however, were intent on calling back to the original. The new "Vacation" features a beautiful woman in a convertible making eye contact with Dad, a reference to (if featuring a rather different ending than) the recurring Christie Brinkley gag from the first film. The soundtrack features multiple versions of Lindsey Buckingham's "Holiday Road," the original's musical leitmotif.

The filmmakers even wrote an updated, texting-centric scene riffing on the original “Vacation” episode in which all of the car’s passengers, including the driver, fall asleep going down the freeway, though it didn't make it into the finished film.

There is a also nod to the signature Truckster, which in this version becomes the tricked-out "Tartan Prancer," a kind of James Bond car of misfortune.

(The actors spent enough hours in that car that their ersatz lives began merging with their real ones. “When you’re together all the time like that, you kind of become like a real family. We developed a world of our own jokes. Or we pretended not to hear John and Jonathan when they were giving us a note we don’t like,” said Gisondo. Incidentally, his character's bullying--by his younger brother--is another 2015 spin, bringing into the modern era the inter-gender squabbling of the original.)

Still, this is an R-rated New Line comedy more than a Phil Lord-Chris Miller postmodern jazz riff. Cow collisions and accidental cesspool dunkings figure prominently. The new "Vacation" boasts big set pieces, as in the rafting scene, and lots of red-band humor, via a misunderstanding between father and son over an explicit sex act and a motel stay featuring unexpected bathroom substances.

Some of the movie’s broadest moments take place during a detour to the home of Audrey and her comically beefcake husband Stone (Chris Hemsworth, in a rare comedic performance). Stone is an alpha type who gets some of the bigger laughs thanks to—how to put this--a strategically placed prosthetic, awakening fresh questions in Rusty about how his wife regards him.

Goldstein and Daley initially wrote "Vacation" as a PG-13 script; this was, after all, about a family. But at the time a few comedies with the softer rating had failed, while R-rated comedies were hot. Executives went back to the writers for an R-rated pass. The result is one of the few movies about everyday parents and kids that the former might not want the latter to see. (The 1983 film was an R too but a soft one, and it came out before the creation of the PG-13.)

Perhaps the biggest deviation from the original lies in the lead character. Helms offers a different kind of patriarch than Chase — less the smirky schemer and more the sweetheart schlemiel. "I may be a little similar to Rusty in my own life," Helms said. "I'm the goofy optimist who thinks things can always work out."

Of the actor’s appeal, Goldstein noted, “There’s a blend of innocence and likability that allows you to empathize with him even when he makes his own problems.”

On cue, after shooting wrapped for the day, Helms decided to join a little kayaking expedition. He donned a suit and nose strips and jumped with his vessel into a rushing stream. The kayak promptly capsized, disappearing its pilot and eliciting a momentary where’s-Ed moment of panic among the land-bound crew.

'Fresh' but respectful'

Sequels to classic movies bring out the naysayers and the timeline scrutinizers — just ask anyone who worked on "Terminator Genisys." Some "Vacation" fans are understandably wary of a movie that invokes the Griswold name but follows the conventions of the modern summer sequel. Chris Bender, a "Vacation" producer, noted that "what we needed to do was be fresh but also respectful. Which was terrifying."

Indeed, the film's lineage can be its biggest selling point, but also its greatest obstacle. "Wouldn't it have been funnier if they did something different, like Rusty and Audrey each had families with kids, and they dropped them off with Clark and Ellen, who had to take care of them as grandparents?" said Barron, the original Audrey, in an interview. "This just feels like it's repeating the idea of the first movie." (That idea has prompted some, including Barron and D'Angelo, to say they think of this as a remake, though New Line and the filmmakers regard it as a sequel.)

Barron, who did not appear in the theatrical sequels, expressed frustration she and Hall weren't contacted for roles in the new film. "It's a little odd that they're moving on like this, saying they're going back to the original but not including the original Audrey or original Rusty," the actress said, in comments that highlight the tricky task of updating a classic.

Still, the appearance of Chase and D'Angelo will offer continuity to the original, even if their roles are small enough that, as D'Angelo quipped, "I think I'm the highest paid actress, by line, of anyone in Hollywood this year."

The rules of narrative have also changed since 1983. The enjoyable slackness of the first film — plot lines digress to nowhere; consequences are non-existent — doesn't really work in today's more structured storytelling world. The filmmakers acknowledge they kept tighter screws on the story than the original, especially in its last act.

The new movie also comes at a moment when the idea of an American vacation is changing. A recent 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll found that two-thirds of Americans would gladly trade vacation days for more money, and nearly 70% of Americans under 30 saw checking emails when not at work a reasonable requirement — an attitude that might make the idea of a fancy-free road trip play a little less convincingly than it did 30 years ago.

Every generation gets the new version of a classic it deserves, as has often been said of Shakespeare and, lately, “Spider-Man.” The original "Vacation," made by filmmakers who came of age in the '60s and set in a taboo-busting era, had a kind of nihilism about the traditional family. The new movie, made by filmmakers who came of age with Oprah and set in the family-values era, has greater concern for the preservation of a marriage.

In that way, "Vacation" may be subject to a criticism about today's R-rated comedies: for all their gross-out humor, they are actually culturally less subversive than their predecessors.

The filmmakers say it's a label they're happy to wear.

"There are inherently emotions that are going on in a road trip. The original was about undermining those emotions and sentimentality, and even the family unit," Goldstein said. "Our movie is a little different. We didn't want to shy away from making a movie about a marriage that's not where it should be and someone setting out to fix it."

Added Daley, "What's changed since the comedies of the '80s is that audiences do appreciate when there's a sweetness and a relatability."

Some of the more stereotyped roles of the original received some tweaking as well. At Applegate's behest, the filmmakers wrote in a scene of Debbie's back story as a former party girl making peace with her new identity, a contrast to Ellen's less dimensional first-film appearance. "I wanted to make sure I wasn't just the wife who puts up with her husband's high jinks but someone complicated in her own right," Applegate said.

D'Angelo agreed. "Debbie is a lot more proactive than Ellen was. She gets to have a causative role in what's happening."

As the new "Vacation" rolls out, there is already an eye on how to keep it moving forward. New Line has asked Daley and Goldstein to begin a take on a sequel to this film, examining where the Griswolds pack off to now that another visit to Walley World has been undertaken. The vacation never really ends. Neither, apparently, does the "Vacation."

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