Let’s just say the original National Lampoon’s Vacation series wasn’t exactly geared toward those who recognized that Beverly D’Angelo, a foxy and feisty force whose eyes glinted with a perpetual smirk, was clearly a superior comedic talent to Chevy Chase. But at least those movies gave her a forum to convert any skeptics. The underlying theme of the first three installments (which all have decent gags and repellent provocations in equal measure) was a stereotypically Reagan-era revision of the ’50s Father Knows Best archetype, a wry acknowledgement that while he certainly did not, deep down it would be best if we all agreed that he should. That Warner Bros.’s (emphasis on “bros”) reboot of the franchise passes the generational torch to not Audrey, but rather Rusty is a tip off that Vacation follows the series’s retrograde logic to its inevitable conclusion. Father doesn’t just know best, he’s the only one whose knowledge or lack thereof means anything at all.
Having been raised by a father for whom trips defined his entire existence, Rusty (Ed Helms, currently comedy cinema’s stalwart butterhead) works as a pilot for a rinky value airline, specializing primarily in 18-minute flights. His wife, Debbie (a grimacing Christina Applegate), may or may not have a career, personal interests, or relatives from her side of the family, but none of the above are deemed of any consequence. (Her introductory trait is that, being consumed by jealousy, she’s unable to shore herself up to like any of her best friend’s Instagram vacation pics from Paris. Ergo, she’s initially defined by intractable inaction.) The couple might have a daughter stuffed in a closet somewhere in their suburban McManse, but Vacation only focuses on their two sons. The elder sensitive soul, James (Skyler Gisondo), plays guitar and doesn’t know what rimjobs are. The younger sociopath, Kevin (Steele Stebbins), who torments James with homophobic taunts and a variety of assaults, deserves to be put to death. If this family is to be saved from their predestined fate of total dysfunction, it’s up to Rusty to serve as their travel agent. Destination: Normaltown.
Or Wally World. Not only did that work out so incredibly well for Rusty’s father three decades ago, it makes perfect sense for Rusty to appease his wife’s desire for a vacation she can get into by recreating his own father’s Quixotic cross-country pratfall. It’s a journey that easily eclipses Clark W. Griswold’s every effort in obscenity: Rusty’s clan baths in shit, rips through cows, and looks on the bright side of a rapist’s gesture of kindness. But his true goal, of course, isn’t to give his family a memorable ride on the 30-story rollercoaster, but to fix everyone. So far as Debbie is concerned, his primary goal is to give her a proper lay, minus his customary scented candle and with the addition of whatever can take his wife’s eyes off of her brother-in-law’s pepperoni-sized tube steak. As though injecting romance into their relationship requires only, well, injection.
His goals for his sons are a little more nuanced. He wants to help his older son to not necessarily stop being such a pansy, but to understand that if that’s what he wants to be, that’s okay; in fact, he endorses James’s evidently budding gender fluidity. (The movie’s mockery lets everyone in on the joke that this is superficially “bad parenting.”) With Kevin, on the other hand, Rusty would just be pleased if he stopped attempting to kill his older brother. When the inevitable manning up happens and James hauls off on his knee-high tormenter, Kevin effectively ceases to exist in any functional way, as if the movie can’t even be bothered to resolve his demons—or doesn’t even want to in the first place, but decided it had to in order to appease the sops in the audience. The only thing the utterly base Vacation inherits from its ascendants, aside from cameo appearances by an overindulged Chase and a predictably underutilized D’Angelo that reek of desperation, is its proud pedigree of crassness.