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July 29, 2015

We’ve had a lot of long-delayed movie sequels in the last couple years, and many writers complain about them as the next evolution in the lack of original content in mainstream cinema. There’s something to that, but there’s also a hidden benefit: making a related movie after such a long delay can make it clearer than ever how the landscape has changed in the meantime. The Farrelly brothers, for instance have traced a steady gradient over their twenty-year career, but placing Dumb and Dumber and Dumb and Dumber To as bookends around it throws into sharp relief just how much meaner they’ve gotten.

But it’s not just them; the whole field of soft-R comedy has gotten mean, and we can see it in the new Vacation. Writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein — the team behind Horrible Bosses — take their turn in the director’s chair to pay homage to John Hughes and Harold Ramis’ classic with a movie that’s somewhere between a remake and yet another sequel.

The common ground between the two is Rusty Griswold, and it’s also the first stumbling block. In Hughes’ original Vacation script, Rusty was a stand-in for Hughes’ memories of himself on his own family’s trip to Disneyland, so he was much sharper than his old man Clark, and that carried over to all the other movies in the series. Until now, that is, when Ed Helms plays Rusty as every bit the buffoon his father was. Except that Chevy Chase gave Clark a real selfish streak that made him the cause of his own undoings, while Rusty is the same incredibly earnest pushover Helms tends to play over and over again. And while that was super-awesome in Cedar Rapids, it just makes him one of the filmmakers’ punching bags here.

That kind of gets to what I’m talking about when I say that Vacation is mean. Early on their own road trip from Chicago to Walley World, Rusty’s family passes through Memphis, where Debbie (Christina Applegate) went to college. They go by her old sorority house, where they find the same charity stunt she invented when she was known as “Debbie Do-Anything”. In story terms, this manages to set up the fact that she had a past Rusty didn’t know about, but that doesn’t make much of a scene. So they contrive an excuse to put Debbie through the stunt: she chugs a pitcher of beer and then runs through a giant inflatable obstacle course, with predictable results.

And there’s no real reason to subject Debbie to this sort of thing. It doesn’t pay off later in any way, and it’s not her comeuppance for anything. It’s just about pointing and laughing as someone is hurt and humiliated. The only possible justification — that we’ve been told she was once a “bad” woman — is even meaner and creepier. And that’s pretty much the tone for most of the crap that Daley and Goldstein put the Griswolds through: pain and humiliation for no real purpose besides the entertainment of a presumably sadistic audience.

There are some bits that don’t fit that pattern, at least. Four cops arguing jurisdiction over Four Corners largely works, as does Charlie Day’s cameo as a typically chipper whitewater rafting guide on the worst day of his life. Rusty’s sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann), shows up, and she and her husband Stone (Chris Hemsworth) are awkward in a subtle way — well, compared with the rest of the movie — that pays off later. There’s even some nice character growth for Rusty’s kids (Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins), and of course for Rusty himself.

But for the most part it’s just Rusty and his equally hapless family getting beaten up for our amusement. The short time we do get to spend in a couple scenes with Clark just reminds us how much better the original Vacation was than this imitation, even if the kids today don’t remember it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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