'Vacation': Road trip comedy goes downhill, reviews say

Family road trips are fraught with peril, from outrageous gas prices to sketchy rest stops to endless choruses of "Are we there yet?" But for the new comedy "Vacation," a sorta-reboot of 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation," there are further bumps on the road to summer fun.

Many movie critics are saying the film — written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Fracis Daley, starring Ed Helms — is raunchy but not trenchant, and it doesn't do much to update the "Vacation" series.

The Times' Rebecca Keegan says the new "Vacation" is "the kind of movie that exists because greenlighting it is easier than thinking. Actually pulling off the reinvention of a beloved comedy franchise, on the other hand, is tricky business. Despite a strong cast and a few solid laughs, Goldstein and Daley don't succeed at the task, relying too much on unexamined nostalgia and vile gross-out gags."

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Keegan adds that the female characters (played by Christina Applegate and Leslie Mann) are underused, and that "where the original 'Vacation' relied on slapstick for its laughs, the new film is dragged down by something grosser and more hostile."

In one of the more positive reviews, the Associated Press' Lindsey Bahr calls "Vacation" an "over-the-top, often hilarious homage to the original" that's "also completely divorced from the reality that made the first so perfect."

Bahr continues: "Everything is done all-out, and there's a charm in that even when it doesn't quite work. … It moves quickly, it'll keep a smile on your face … and it will draw out hearty laughs along the way. Daley and Goldstein have gotten the manic, screwball tone down to a near-science."

But Bahr is in the minority.

The Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek says, "The new but not necessarily improved ['Vacation'] 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."

The movie, Zacharek continues, is "both shaggy and slack, ambling from joke to joke like an old dude riding a decrepit golf cart," and unfortunately Helms "doesn't have even half the goofy charisma of [the 1983 film's Chevy] Chase, and that was limited to begin with. [Helms] keeps slugging away at the material, gamely, but he's too self-consciously earnest to give in to true madness."

It's not that the original film is untouchable, says AV Club's Jesse Hassenger, who gives the reboot a C grade: "It wouldn't be impossible… to match or even improve upon the 1983 'Vacation.' Yet the 2015 model still can't manage it, in large part because whenever Daley and Goldstein have the opportunity to make any biting observations or mount sustained original gags, they floor it in the opposite direction."

The original film "at least contrasted Reagan-era dysfunction with one father's picturesque and often-ridiculous ideal of an all-American road trip," Hassenger says. "The new one hints at modern complications … but otherwise ignores its own set-ups."

And the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips muses, "There must be some sort of Dr. Seuss contraption shared among Hollywood studios called the Unfunny-izer, hauled out and set to sputtering when it comes time for the latest depressing remake of a comedy. The new 'Vacation' must've been run through it twice."

Phillips goes on to say that the edgy humor isn't "surprising or cleverly timed," and the movie "ups the gross-out ante without actually bothering to bring the Griswolds into the 21st Century."

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