Road to nowhere: the painfully unfunny Vacation
What can you say about a film whose opening joke involves a grown man falling face-first into the crotch of a ten-year-old boy?
Certainly not that it's operating on any kind of intellectual level. Vacation's jokes avoid the brain entirely and make their play directly for the gut, or parts even further south. It has no interest in impressing with its wit, although wit would have struggled to find space to breathe anyway in a script crowded with the comedy writer's trusty old companion: the projective vomit.
When did comedies stop even trying to be fun? Vacation is a mean-spirited endurance test for how much cruelty, shit, piss and vomit you can take without storming out of a cinema, and there's barely a laugh to be had. It's hard to understand how a creative team and studio could have seen early cuts of this film and thought it deserved to exist at all, let alone be presented to the paying public. But then again, it's the kind of film that defies understanding.
A sequel to the immensely popular series of Vacation films starring Chevy Chase and Beverley D'Angelo as the Griswolds, Ed Helms plays their all-grown-up son Rusty. Now married with two kids of his own (both boys), Rusty finds himself in a situation eerily reminiscent of the one his own father was in: stuck in a rut, he attempts to recapture the joy of his youth by forcing his family into a ridiculous car for a road trip to Walley World, an amusement park on the other side of the country.
Here's the first fundamental problem with the rebooted Vacation: the structure and basic format of the film is essentially a carbon copy of the original, placing Rusty in a situation almost identical to the one his father experienced. By doing so, Ed Helms opens himself up to comparison to one of the major reasons why the original Vacation worked so well: Chevy Chase.
By 1983, when the first Vacation was released, Chase had cultivated a persona of the loveable asshole, so cocksure that you wanted to hate him but charming and funny enough that you couldn't. He built this persona on television during the first season of Saturday Night Live and then in feature films like Caddyshack, playing completely unlikeable characters that audiences couldn't help but like.
Ed Helms is not Chevy Chase. Helms' wheelhouse, from his work in The Office and The Hangover series, among others, is the put-upon weakling, the milquetoast loser who strives for status above his station. He is hilarious too, of course, but in a very different way to Chase. The humour that the previous Vacation movies mined — forcing the arrogant, smarmy douchebag to his breaking point and watching the fireworks as he explodes — isn't available to the reboot.
But oh how they try anyway. Rusty blusters and shouts his way through the film, desperate to force his family to enjoy themselves. Unfortunately, because he's got the arrogance part of the equation but not the charm, Helms' Rusty comes off as an insecure, entitled twat.
So much of the comedy in the earlier Vacation films comes purely through attitude. Take the classic scene in Christmas Vacation where Clark receives what he hopes is a Christmas bonus but turns out to be a yearly subscription to the Jelly of the Month club. On paper it's just a monologue with a succession of old-timey and inoffensive insults delivered one after the other, but with Chase's delivery as a man truly at the end of his rope with a boss that he hates, a job he does only to support his family, and a family that just won't fucking enjoy themselves, it's comedic poetry.
Poetry is the furthest thing from one's mind when experiencing the 2015 Vacation film, because its second fundamental flaw is that there are, essentially, no jokes. An interminable gross-out assault, every stop along the Griswolds' journey across the USA ends with an oppressively large amount of bodily fluids thrust upon on someone or something, but almost no punchlines.
The family's first stop is Memphis, where Rusty's wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) went to college. A misguided attempt to prove herself to the current members of her old sorority ends with her chugging a jug of beer and immediately throwing it all up, in an excruciating scene that lasts at least two minutes. In Arkansas, the family stops at what appears to be a natural hot spring, lathering themselves with its "mineral-rich" mud deposits and horsing around in its picturesque waters, before it's revealed that it's actually an open sewer and they've been covering themselves with human waste. In Texas, while staying with Rusty's sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her husband Stone Crandall (Chris Hemsworth), Rusty rides a quad-bike straight into a cow, obliterating it into a disgusting slurry of blood and bone, which another cow immediately comes over and starts lapping up.
Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein gleefully lock their cameras on the carnage in each of these scenes, as if a woman lying in a pile of her own vomit were the peak of comedic brilliance and required no traditional jokes to support it. This near-total reliance on outrageous moments lowers the bar for comedy to a level rarely before seen, even among the relatively joke-free standards of major studio Hollywood in the 21st century. And what few traditional jokes there are, are lowest common denominator and lazily play to our most base, animalistic interests.
Vacation is Man Getting Hit By Football made real, or perhaps Man Vomits Directly Into Baby's Mouth While Shitting On A Cow. John Waters famously said "if you go home with someone and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em", and I think that sentiment can now be extended: if you watch Vacation with someone and they laugh at or enjoy it in any way, immediately cut them out of your life.
I'm not here to argue that the original Vacation was an idyllic, therapeutic hot spring, but the reboot is a steaming pool of raw sewage.