The tagline for "Vacation" asks "What could go wrong?" The answer is so, so much.
Following in the footsteps of other recent franchise resurrection efforts ("Terminator Genysis," "Jurassic World"), the latest from the National Lampoon series misjudges what made the originals work: Chevy Chase and his sneering charisma. While the controversial comedy icon appears in a requisite cameo here, it's not enough to save this "Vacation."
A sequel to the 1983 original, it finds grown-up Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) carting his grousing family of four on the same road trip to Walley World. It's Rusty's desperate bid to force his family to be closer, and bring the smile back to the face of his disgruntled wife (Christina Applegate). That might be a charming goal, if only it seemed in any other respect that Rusty gives a damn about his family. But he sputters to know virtually anything about them beyond their most basic interests (wrestling, Paris, books). Yet he believes himself to be a dedicated family man, and the film never challenges him on that point. Instead, we're meant to see him as a dope in every other aspect, whether it's on appropriate lecture topics for a tween (glory holes) or who to trust at a tourist attraction (a dirty mouth-breather who doesn't realize a rat is traipsing along his shoulders).
The energy is just off on this road trip. Helms tries to create his own take on the flustered family man by toning down Clark's mercurial menace. But his broad grin doesn't make for a likeable character, and actually conflicts with the movie's devotedly mean-spirited humor. This cruel brand of comedy is exhibited most succinctly in the trailer with a callback to Clark's flirtation with a hot babe in a convertible. The twist: This time she's annihilated when a cement truck hits her head on. It's disturbing but not funny, much like the running gag of younger brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins) bullying his diary-toting older brother James (Skyler Gisondo) by shouting out insults laced with f-bombs, references to female anatomy and AIDS. "Vacation" strives for edgy, but its shock tactics are too tired to be anything but mundanely offensive.
These Griswolds as a family just aren't funny. Thankfully, the road trip allows for a variety of bits. Some -- like a visit to wife Debbie's old sorority stomping grounds -- are painfully obvious tools to throw some T&A and gross-out gags into "Vacation." Many go on way past their peak. But others offer welcomed comedy cameos, like Kaitlin Olson, Nick Kroll, Tim Heidecker and "Ant-Man" breakout Michael Pena as power-hungry cops warring outrageously over jurisdiction at the Four Corners Monument. Keegan Michael Key (a highlight in yet another lame summer movie) and Regina King steal scenes as the Griswold's world-trekking, Facebook-obsessed besties. And Charlie Day is a deranged delight as the world's worst whitewater-rafting instructor. In these sequences, the packed theater, which had grown eerie in its silence, erupted with fits of laughter.
The biggest standout is "Thor" star Chris Hemsworth as Rusty's brother-in-law Stone, a cowboy weatherman who has no boundaries and a good reason to be cocky. Alongside Leslie Mann's Audrey, Hemsworth shines as a ludicrous yet likeable ass, whether he's bragging about the time he cried with Charlton Heston (the most manly of tears, surely), constructing confoundingly faucet-centric metaphors or flaunting his junk in pair of boxer briefs that leave little to the imagination. Reflecting on "Vacation," I realize that all the parts I like focus on anyone but the Griswolds. Basically, "Vacation" would have been far more entertaining if it followed literally any other character on a road trip.
Co-writers and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (who -- lucky us -- have been tapped to pen the 2017 Spider-Man reboot), have wildly miscast and mismanaged their leads. Helms and Applegate have zero chemistry, so it's nearly impossible to feel invested in their marital drama. Like in "Jurassic World," the feuding brothers are so insufferable that I was kind of rooting for them to get eaten by dinosaurs, even though that'd make zero sense here. And even Applegate, who's proved a sparkling comedic performer in "Married With Children," "Anchorman" and "Samantha Who?," is lackluster here, forced to alternately nag and projectile vomit for laughs.
I by no means think the original "Vacation" was some sort of sacred cow that should never dare be mined for another sequel. But in a summer where we've been given blisteringly subversive and fresh comedies like "Spy" and "Trainwreck," this caustic "Vacation" is ill-timed. Its gags are outdated and hackneyed. Its heroes are annoying at best and despicable at worst. But most importantly, it's just not funny.
"Vacation" opens Wednesday nationwide.