The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



For the book My Year of Chevy: One Guy's Journey Through the Filmography of Chevy Chase, I spent twelve months watching and analyzing every movie the comedian was ever involved with. Naturally, a big section of that book was devoted to the Vacation series. I'd seen all four installments multiple times, but in sitting and really investigating them, I came to some realizations about what made them work (when they did) and what made them fail (when they didn't). The new Vacation reboot – or whatever you want to call it – lacks the thing most crucial to the success of any given entry in the series.

Ed Helms plays Rusty Griswold, Clark's now-grown son. Upon finding out that wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and sons Kevin (Steele Stebbins) and James (Skyler Gisondo) don't like the cabin where they go every summer, Rusty decides to do something different. His bright idea is to recreate the family vacation from his childhood by taking his own clan to the amusement park known as Walley World. The trip is no less problematic, involving, among other things, a vehicle that makes the Griswold Family Truckster look elegant in comparison. Along their pitfall-heavy journey, the Griswolds stop to see Rusty's sister Audrey (Leslie Mann), who's now married to a studly weatherman named Stone (Chris Hemsworth), and his parents (Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo). Clark even provides a much-needed pep talk.

Most people would probably concur that the original 1983 Vacation and 1989's Christmas Vacation are the best films in the series. European Vacation and Vegas Vacation have some great moments, but never hit the highs of the other two. There's a reason for this. The first and third movies emphasize the single most important comic idea in the franchise. They are about the way Clark Griswold tries to create a “perfect,” Norman Rockwell-esque experience, only to find it repeatedly just beyond his grasp. In Vacation, he wanted the perfect family trip. In Christmas Vacation, he wanted the perfect holiday season. Everything conspired against him, to his increasing frustration. The best jokes in both pictures all originated from that place. European and Vegas, on the other hand, downplayed his obsession, and were therefore more erratic in terms of generating laughter.

This new Vacation doesn't have that idea, nor does it find a comparable one. In the last fifteen minutes, there's an attempt to wring a little bit of pathos from the idea that Rusty and Debbie's marriage has grown dull; however, that idea needed to be developed more fully and a lot earlier, so that Rusty's desire to spice things up would be the engine that drives him. Ed Helms and Christina Applegate are both massively talented individuals, doubtlessly up to the task of conveying the malaise felt by their characters. Why not give them that opportunity?

In place of a comic core, Vacation offers one scene after another designed for shock value or to revel in prurient, lowbrow gags. Glory holes, bizarre sexual practices, people bathing in sewage, and a character cheerfully showing off his “bulge” are the types of things on display here. The original Vacation also contained some boundary-pushing humor, but it was all anchored by the seriousness with which Clark took his mission. Without a similar type of anchor, this entry just feels scattershot and empty. Outrageousness isn't always funny in and of itself; it can feel a bit desperate, which is exactly what happens in this instance. Writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (creators of the Horrible Bosses movies) put a lot of energy into crafting R-rated jokes, without ever grounding them in anything to give them context or meaning.

Consequently, the pleasures in Vacation are few and far between. There are a couple funny moments not centered around gross-out subjects. The weird car, for instance, gets some laughs from its utterly pointless gadgets. A scene involving the diet of Stone's prized steer is also a little closer in tone to the best moments of the original, specifically the sojourn to Cousin Eddie's house. Perhaps the most clever idea is that Kevin, the younger Griswold boy, bullies his older brother. Steele Stebbins proves to be a scene-stealer as the profane child who lives to torment his sibling. And then there's Chevy Chase, who only has two scenes, but nonetheless shows that his crack comic timing is still sharp. The way he removes a guitar from a glass case is a vintage bit of his physical comedy. It's also the funniest thing in the whole picture.

In the end, the 2015 Vacation is easily the bottom entry in the series. I find that European Vacation really doesn't hold up well at all, although it at least has some very quotable lines. (“Look, kids! Big Ben! Parliament!”) No one will be quoting this movie thirty years down the [holiday] road. It's admittedly not as bad as it could have been. It's also not anywhere near the original trip to Walley World or that Christmas the Griswolds spent at home.

( out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

Vacation arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray combo pack November 3. The bonus features on the disc are quite good for fans of the series. “Return to Walley World” (9 minutes) looks at the challenges of continuing this franchise after a break of many years. The cast and filmmakers discuss modernizing the premise while trying to stay faithful to the core concept. “The Griswold Odyssey” (18 minutes) focuses on some of the key elements in the movie, including the design of the strange car the family drives, the filming of a stunt sequence at a sorority party, and the use of a Six Flags amusement park in Atlanta to double as Walley World. Chevy Chase also offers some perspective on things. “Georgia” (2 minutes) is all about the diverse landscape of the state, which allowed the production to shoot everything there instead of trotting all across the country. There's also a gag reel (1:30) with some humorous bits.

The highlight of the bonus material is twelve minutes of deleted scenes, many of which are much closer in tone to the original Vacation than what ended up in the final cut. Leslie Mann gets a hilarious scene between a demented Audrey and her baby, and there are two more brief bits with Chevy and Beverly D'Angelo that are quite funny. Also in here is a lengthy sequence set at a Burning Man-type event that features cameos from Martin Starr and Samm Levine (co-writer/director John Frances Daley's co-stars on the great Freaks and Geeks show). Regardless of your take on the finished film, there's definitely some good stuff in this section.

A digital copy of the movie is also included in the pack.

Vacation is rated R for crude and sexual content and language throughout, and brief graphic nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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