This is the moment when I have to vow never to see another comedy from the team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. The writers of such films as Horrible Bosses and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone have proven on a constant basis that they do not grasp comedy. They hearken back to classic Farrelly brothers humor, but wind-up being a lot like rip-offs of later Farrelly brothers films. Vacation is the biggest example of this, and once again demonstrates why Horrible Bosses wound up being relatively okay as a laugh machine – the actors salvage what few jokes are capable of salvaging.
When I say that the writers (and now feature-length directors with this movie) don’t have a grasp of comedy, I’m not saying that they can’t be funny. I think there was a joke somewhere in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone that was funny, and Horrible Bosses definitely had something. But when Vacation makes you laugh, it’s because there’s an earnestness to it. Sometimes that can come through in the writing, but more often than not, it is the actors who polish the joke. Take the white water rafting scene from this film (which is the highlight, for sure), which has clever execution on all fronts and is brought alive by Charlie Day’s brief appearance and performance.
In what is perfect casting, Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold as he prepares to take his family on a vacation. But after overhearing his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), complain that she finds their vacations boring, he gets the idea to take the family to Walley World, the place where his father, Clark (Chevy Chase, who reprises his role), took him and his family as a kid. While that is a reasonable set-up for a revival of a classic franchise like National Lampoon’s Vacation, I can’t think of two writers who are worse to handle this kind of humor. While Helms is able to do a lot of the subtlety which Chase nailed perfectly, the set up for jokes is so painful that I almost walked out right off the bat.
For the sake of not sounding like I am just hating on this to hate it, let me explain a scene that happens at the beginning of their trip: Rusty gets a rental car for the road trip to Walley World. He was given an Albanian hybrid car, which has two gas tanks, four rear view mirrors (two on the front facing back, and two on the back facing front), and a remote with various buttons that only have images on them such as a muffin, rabbit, and various other nonsense. It’s not a joke that makes fun of Albania, it isn’t a joke that works in the spirit of National Lampoon‘s Vacation series (Clark wasn’t an idiot, he was just naive and stubborn), and it isn’t a joke that lands at all. Oh, the car remote has too many buttons you don’t understand? It seems like that car would not exist in the real world, because it apparently doesn’t even have generic symbols for starting the engine or locking doors.
This is the first film by JFD and JG that feels like it takes place in an alternate universe, which is weird, because it takes place in the same universe that National Lampoon’s Vacation did. Gags involve bodily fluids going from inside someone or something to outside, on a frequent basis. That’s the punchline! While some jokes like the white water rafting one and a slightly amusing orgy sequence are well-written, they also end extremely poorly. The orgy one just goes on for far too long and stops being about the Griswolds. The white water rafting one takes the saps the humor from the scene by beating you over the head with a dumb gag. It’s almost like they don’t even know what parts of their jokes are funny.
I compared this movie to a knock-off of later Farrelly ventures. What I mean by that is its jokes feel forced. That magical earnestness isn’t there in the writing, almost ever. Dumb jokes are played off like they can sustain themselves. There’s no foundation for them, and there’s definitely no commitment to them. What’s worse is that Vacation has a set style of humor that it should have been working from, but instead the writer/directors attempt some weird form of modernization – but you’re effectively switching styles of comedy. From comedy that is timeless because it is more about the absurdity of a situation, to what is now just a clone of The Hangover but the Wolfpack has been replaced with a family.
I haven’t gone into the fact that the two children of Rusty’s are insultingly bad. One just yells profanity and threatens his brother’s life on a constant basis, and the other is a wimp who likes girls. The former shows that the writers think profanity from a kid is still considered funny, and the other shows that awkward pubescent boys is apparently still funny. Oh, and Leslie Mann shows up later as Rusty’s sister, Audrey, and seemed like a logical progression of the character from the films. But if it wasn’t for Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) saying that Audrey’s seemingly sex-centric relationship wasn’t working out, I’d take that statement back. I still think it’s a poorly developed character, and if it wasn’t for several films with her, I wouldn’t even call her a character.
Finally, I just want to accentuate the fact that almost everything in this film feels superfluous. It’s a serious of mishaps that only happen because someone thought the punchline was worth it. It never was. Occasionally, a good joke gets in there, but it really is Ed Helms and Christina Applegate that do anything to try and manage this trainwreck. As I opened the review, I think this is the final straw for me and John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldstein comedy combination. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone wasn’t offensively bad, but it was utterly boring. Horrible Bosses was saved by its cast. This film throws its cast into a tank of sharks and occasionally you get to see one of them do something that might hurt a shark, but the realization comes quickly that they are doomed to die.