FILM

Vacation - spiritual sequel to National Lampoon's Vacation

A new generation of Griswolds blazes a fresh comedy path in today's self-help world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 10:58pm
NYT

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Ed Helms and Christina Applegate, well-known comedy actors posing in a fake marriage, were trying to protect their two fake sons from a fake tsunami.

The quartet, joined by Charlie Day as a volatile fake river-rafting guide, were in a boat one morning last autumn at a small water park. They were contemplating how they'd managed to get themselves into this vacation situation and, more importantly, how they'd get themselves out.

A portable geyser doused them with water. A raft rocked angrily as burly men puled on wires to tame it. Oars and other navigation devices were as absent as a Rand McNally map at a Google convention.

"You're our only hope," Helms wailed to Day. A moment later, a director yelled "cut", and the group emerged from the boat - life-jacketed, wet and in Applegate's case, visibly queasy - to join crew members on dry land. "Just like being on a real vacation," Helms said, flashing his square grin, as he bounded over to a set of monitors in socks and slippers, waving aside a dry sweatshirt the way a tennis player declines a new ball.

The actors were inhabiting the Griswolds, a name with plenty of cinematic currency thanks to the landmark 1983 comedy National Lampoon's Vacation; it featured John Hughes as writer, Harold Ramis as director and Chevy Chase as star. A subversive and innuendo-laden movie that sent up the nuclear-family entertainments of the 1950s, Vacation became a huge hit upon release, then spawned four sequels and countless imitators. One is hard-pressed to think of a contemporary family-centric comedy - RV, Are We There Yet? and countless others - that doesn't have a little Griswoldian DNA in it.

In its episodic tale of a man bent on taking his wife and two children to Southern California's fictional Walley World come hell or dead relatives, the original Vacation served as a cinematic mirror. Through the Griswolds' roadside disasters, we came to understand a bit of ourselves, seeing in their trashed Truckster and glazed eyes the misguided optimism of the American vacation psyche.

In the new movie Vacation - directed by first-timers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the writing duo behind Horrible Bosses - young son Rusty Griswold is all grown up and eager to recreate his familial past. A Chicago-based pilot and married father of two, the character who was once an Anthony Michael Hall imp is now an Ed Helms man, prone to Ed Helms stumbles.

Rusty decides, after an emasculating dinner with a neighbour, that he wants to take wife Debbie and boys James and Kevin on a road trip to Walley World just as his father Clark did years before, in the hope of jolting life into his marriage and earning the respect of his children. Rusty's grown-up sister Audrey, Dana Barron in the original, is also back, this time as a free-loving Leslie Mann.

As a spiritual sequel to the first film, Vacation is the rare comedy to pick up a thread three decades later. Chase and on-screen wife Beverly D'Angelo also cameo, their first big-screen appearance as Clark and Ellen Griswold in 18 years. It is an unusual undertaking - an attempt, in this age of superhero shared-universes, to expand a mythology in a much lighter genre.

If it's to succeed, though, the trailblazing property must find a new path in the seen-it-all comedy world of 2015. And it must simultaneously please - or at least not offend - a generation that treats the original as sacred text.

"We've been approaching this," Goldstein says, "like a kid whose dad gave him keys to one of the most beloved cars ever made."

As this is a Vacation movie, that car will inevitably get pulverised.

Sequels to classic movies bring out the naysayers and the timeline scrutiny. Some Vacation fans are understandably wary of a movie that invokes the Griswold name but follows the conventions of the modern summer sequel. Chris Bender, a Vacation producer, notes that "what we needed to do was be fresh but also respectful. Which was terrifying".

Indeed, the film's lineage can be its biggest selling point but also its greatest obstacle. "Wouldn't it have been funnier if they did something different, like Rusty and Audrey each had families with kids, and they dropped them off with Clark and Ellen, who had to take care of them as grandparents?" says Barron, the original Audrey. "This just feels like it's repeating the idea of the first movie."

Barron, who did not appear in the theatrical sequels, expresses frustration she and Hall weren't contacted for roles in the new film. "It's a little odd that they're moving on like this, saying they're going back to the original but not including the original Audrey or original Rusty," the actress says, in comments that highlight the tricky task of updating a classic.

The rules of narrative have also changed since 1983. The enjoyable slackness of the first film - plot lines digress to nowhere; consequences are non-existent - doesn't really work in today's more structured storytelling world. The filmmakers acknowledge they kept tighter screws on the story than the original, especially in its last act.

The new movie also comes when the idea of an American vacation is changing. A recent 60 Minutes/ Vanity Fair poll found that two-thirds of Americans would gladly trade holiday time for more money, and nearly 70 per cent of those under 30 thought checking emails when not at work was a reasonable requirement - an attitude that might make the idea of a fancy-free road trip play a little less convincingly than it did 30 years ago.

Our movie is a little different. We didn't want to shy away from making a movie about a marriage that's not where it should be and someone setting out to fix it
Jonathan Goldstein

The original Vacation, made by filmmakers who came of age in the '60s and which was set in a taboo-busting era, had a kind of nihilism about the traditional family. The new movie, made by filmmakers who came of age in a more self-help-oriented Oprah time and set in the family-values era, has greater concern for the preservation of a marriage.

In that way, Vacation may be subject to a criticism about today's R-rated comedies: for all their in-your-face gross-out humour, they are actually culturally less subversive than their predecessors.

The filmmakers say it's a label they're happy to wear.

"There are inherently emotions that are going on in a road trip. The original was about undermining those emotions and sentimentality, and even the family unit," Goldstein says. "Our movie is a little different. We didn't want to shy away from making a movie about a marriage that's not where it should be and someone setting out to fix it."

Adds Daley: "What's changed since the comedies of the '80s is that audiences do appreciate when there's a sweetness and a relatability."

Some of the more stereotyped roles of the original received some tweaking as well. At Applegate's behest, the filmmakers wrote in a scene of Debbie's back story as a former party girl making peace with her new identity, a contrast to Ellen's less dimensional first-film appearance.

"I wanted to make sure I wasn't just the wife who puts up with her husband's high jinks, but someone complicated in her own right," Applegate says.

As the new Vacation rolls out, there is already an eye on how to keep it moving forward. New Line has asked Daley and Goldstein to begin a take on a sequel to this film, examining where the Griswolds pack off to now that another visit to Walley World has been undertaken. The vacation never really ends.

Los Angeles Times

Vacation opens on August 6