"So you wanna redo your vacation from 30 years ago?" Debbie Griswold asks her husband, Rusty, with a look of bewilderment, early on in the new comedy "Vacation."
Debbie, honey. Time for a lesson in Hollywood economics.
A reboot of the "National Lampoon's Vacation" film series launched in 1983, this new "Vacation," written and directed by "Horrible Bosses" screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, 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. The new "Vacation" turns out to be a mostly bumpy, unpleasant trip.
The original movie, which featured John Hughes as writer and Harold Ramis as director, wasn't exactly high art — half the laughs involved Chevy Chase's reckless driving, many others his reckless walking. But there was something subversive about how the movie toyed with the enforced cheerfulness of the nuclear family and the sanctity of the all-knowing patriarch, deflating the "Father Knows Best" era like a blown tire on the Griswolds' Wagon Queen Family Truckster. At least three of the movies in the six-movie "Vacation" franchise are entertaining in a basic-cable-rainy-Sunday kind of way.
Enter the seventh film, in which Ed Helms portrays a grownup Rusty, in the role originally played by 15-year-old Anthony Michael Hall. A sweet, ineffectual pilot for a regional airline, Rusty proposes a family road trip to Walley World, the very theme park where his father, Clark Griswold (Chase), brought him as a child. Dads have changed a lot since 1983 — now they wear Baby Bjorns and sometimes earn less than moms. One way to update "Vacation" might have been to play with those changes, but instead the movie stays rooted firmly in the original's tired marital dynamics.
Rusty's long-suffering wife (and are there any other kind in movies like this?), Debbie (Christina Applegate), indulges him, and their two children, sensitive older brother James (Skyler Gisondo) and bratty little brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins) pile in the back of a peculiarly tricked out minivan called the Tartan Prancer ("the Honda of Albania," Rusty calls it).
The script's sharpest jokes are topical takes on changing family life —– keeping up with the Joneses in the Instagram age, talking to your kids about "gender fluidity," navigating an unfamiliar city as a rogue GPS system barks at you in Korean. As in the original, the hapless dad just wants to show his family a good time, and Helms excels at scenes of clueless exuberance, whether belting out a Seal song while at the wheel of the Prancer or failing as a romantic wingman when James meets a girl by the motel pool.
There's a freshness to the relationship between the brothers too, as the younger sibling, for once, is the bully, and the older one a poetry-writing softie, and both Gisondo and Stebbins have good timing and natural instincts as actors.
Like the original, this film is rated R, but Rs are raunchier than they used to be. Where the original "Vacation" relied on slapstick for its laughs, the new film is dragged down by something grosser and more hostile — let's call it splatstick. In the course of the movie's 98 minutes, a pretty girl and a farm animal both get splattered, the family ends up elbow deep in raw sewage, and Debbie pukes her way through a visit to her old sorority. It's enough to make you say, "Dad, pull over the car. I'm gonna be sick."
Applegate does her best with what's on the page, including the vomitous set piece that explains her college nickname, "Debbie Do Anything." It's more comedic opportunity than Chase's straightwoman, Beverly D'Angelo, ever got in the original films, but that's not saying much. Thirty years later, funny women are still underused — this time it's Applegate and Leslie Mann as Rusty's sister, who seems to exist in the movie only to beam radiantly at her husband, hunky local weatherman Stone Crandall (Chris Hemsworth).
The guys are more fortunate: Hemsworth has one of the movie's most memorable scenes, in an extended visual joke about his impressive anatomy, and Charlie Day creates a delightfully unhinged character out of a river-rafting tour guide reeling from a recent breakup.
By this point, though, the Griswolds have driven a very long way for a few laughs. When Chase and D'Angelo appear in a short scene late in the film, like Stan Lee in a Marvel movie, it's supposed to reward "Vacation's" fan base with a moment of sweet recognition.
Instead, the effect is sort of sad — a puffy Chase does some unfunny bumbling, D'Angelo barely says a word, and they open the garage to reveal the mint-condition Wagon Queen Family Truckster, ready for cruising by a new generation of Griswolds. Someone's been taking good care of the old car, but the franchise is pretty dinged up.