You can be mean, or you can be dumb, but only one of the two. Really, you can technically be whatever you want, but if you are both mean and dumb, you’re going to have an extremely hard time making it in a world where success often depends greatly on the ability to connect with other people. Immense beauty can render this rule of thumb irrelevant, but that’s rare and fleeting and, eventually, irrelevant itself.
I think this is true not just for people, but for the things they make. All this is to say that John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein’s Vacation, a hybrid sequel/remake of 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, is virtually worthless. It is mean, it is dumb, and it ain’t pretty either.
Most detrimentally, it is rarely funny. Daley and Goldstein want you to believe that they have their fingers on the pulse, but actually their thumbs are up their asses. As the Griswolds (led this time by Rusty, who’s played by Ed Helms) hop from humiliating situation to humiliating situation in their cross country trip to the theme-park destination of the original film, Walley World, Daley and Goldstein work in jokes about would-be edgy topics du jour like rim jobs, pedophilia, big dicks, and women’s promiscuity. Most of these jokes come down to merely stating that these things exist—see the scene in which Chris Hemsworth struts around in underwear for Rusty and his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) showing off a dick so big his boxer briefs can barely contain it. Big dick: there’s your joke. Ha?
A rare exception of a topical joke that actually does work occurs early on, when Rusty’s despicably shitheaded son Kevin (Steele Stebbins) writes, “I have a vagina,” on the guitar that belongs to his older brother, James (Skyler Gisondo). Rusty turns the intended insult into a “teachable moment” about gender fluidity. “There’s a lot of boys born with vaginas and it’s really hard for them,” he explains patiently, subverting a classic misogynist insult with a 2015-style sensitivity. This happens early on in the movie, and for a moment it seems like there’s a point to the seemingly needless updating that’s happening. But soon we come to find that, no, there actually isn’t a point. Vacation is a reboot for reboot’s sake that contains a joke about reboots, which again, merely states their existence in the most paltry showing of self-awareness imaginable. The exercise’s futility is made even clearer when Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo reprise their roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold in Vacation’s third act. Their appearances amount to cameos. Like most of the jokes, their presence is the supposed present. Where’s my gift receipt? For that matter, how much were they paid to show their considerably time-altered faces in this sea of excrement and misery?
On the way to Walley World this time around, the Griswolds bathe in shit, get robbed, visit Debbie’s old sorority where she chugs a pitcher of beer and throws up all over the place while attempting to run an inflatable obstacle course, and end up waiting five hours in a line for one roller coaster. It’s never really clear why these people actually enjoy each other’s company, beyond the fact that they’re all in the same family and movie together. At least the original string of three Vacation movies attempted to balance humiliation with sentiment. This movie and its family make no such effort. They’re just there, traveling without moving.