Vacation (R) ★★★

Review Date: July 29th, 2015

"No need to remember when, 'Cause everything old is new again." - Peter Allen & Carole Bayer Sager

We live in an era of remakes, reboots, and sequels. Hollywood, having apparently run out of new ideas (or, more accurately, being afraid of bringing anything unfamiliar to the screen), has come to a point where the path forward involves looking back. This summer, multiplexes have brought back The Avengers, Jurassic Park dinosaurs, Tom Cruise and his IMF pals, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, and now Clark Griswold. When a rolling stone gathers no moss and makes a ton of money, you can bet it's only going to gain speed.

When Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo made Vacation (full name: National Lampoon's Vacation) more than 30 years ago, it was a surprise hit. Directed by the late Harold Ramis from a screenplay by the late John Hughes (yes, that John Hughes), Vacation found the nexus between riotous humor and nostalgia, tapping into the desire of every viewer to laugh and reminisce. Oddly, this new version, which could be considered a "soft reboot" (restarting the franchise without throwing away the past - sort-of like Jurassic World but without the dinosaurs), has much the same goal. The comedy has been "upgraded" to meet modern standards for vulgarity and raunchiness. And the nostalgia plays not on dimly-remembered family vacations but on our recollections of having a good time watching the Griswolds embark upon theirs in the 1980s. By throwing in cameos for Chase (who now looks suspiciously like Doc Brown from Back to the Future) and D'Angelo, Vacation 2015 connects the new movie to those that have preceded it.

Ed Helms, a Hangover veteran, is a perfect choice to take over the reins from Chase. He plays Rusty Griswold, Clark's son. In true "Cat's in the Cradle" fashion, he's grown up just like Dad. So he wants to take his wife and kids on a special Memorial Day weekend to L.A.'s Walley World, the Disneyland-inspired amusement park destination in the 1983 Vacation. And, like Clark (and apparently not having learned anything from his childhood misadventure), he thinks driving from Chicago to California is the best way to promote family bonding. His wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), is skeptical. His sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins), are downright hostile. And, in true Griswold fashion, Murphy rides shotgun and his rule takes over the trip.

Vacation passes the most important test of any comedy: it's funny. Much of the humor is off-color and obsessed with sex and bodily fluids, but that's par for the course in the R-rated genre. Vacation (1983) was considered risqué for its era. By today's standards, it's tame, but the sensibility has been maintained. The new film follows the template of its predecessor. There's a lot of "embarrassment" comedy in which laughs come at the expense of the main character as he repeatedly makes a fool out of himself.

Without aping Chase's performance, Helms captures the essence of the Vacation patriarch. He's a Father Knows Best type who somehow manages to do everything wrong. Chase's brief appearance as Clark emphasizes how right Helms is in the role. Christina Applegate's Debbie is more wild and less grounded that Beverly D'Angelo's Ellen (although without the nude scene). The kids, James and Kevin, have a similar dynamic to the one that existed between Rusty and Audrey.

Vacation has fun with call-backs to the original. In an early scene, Rusty and Debbie discuss the merits of this "new vacation" versus those of the "first vacation." The subsequent road trip follows a similar trajectory, with stops at an off-the-map "hot springs" rest area, a house shared by Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her hunky weatherman husband, Stone (Chris Hemsworth), a motel that only Norman Bates could love, and (of course) the Grand Canyon. There's a nod to the hot girl in a red Ferrari, an incident involving a big rig, and the reappearance of the most infamous vehicle to emerge from the 1983 film. Plus, Vacation opens with Lindsay Buckingham's "Holiday Road."

Vacation doesn't quite come up to the level of the original (although, to be fair, the 1983 movie has not aged well) but it's better than any of the sequels, including the holiday favorite, Christmas Vacation. It doesn't try to do too much. As with all episodic comedies, this one is hit-and-miss but there are enough "hits" to keep most viewers entertained. Whether one considers this a reboot or sequel, it argues that the old Wagon Queen Family Truckster still has some gas left in the tank.

© 2015 James Berardinelli