“I don’t know why they call this Hamburger Helper — it does just fine by itself.” “Mom, we don’t have to ride with a dead person, do we?” “Dog killer!” “Daddy says I’m the best.” That camera pan of the sleeping family that ends with Dad snoring behind the wheel. If you’re like me, your cultural memory circuits are still so loaded up with the first “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” you don’t need a new one. Here it is, anyway, simply titled “Vacation” as though it were a generic bottle of antacid pills on a drugstore shelf.
The first “Vacation,” released in 1983, written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, was a lowdown road farce whose chief claim to subversion lay in saying out loud what we already knew: that family vacations are a very particular kind of living hell. Watching the movie today, you’re shocked by how mean it is and how that meanness feels like liberation — a form of exhausted middle-class truth-telling.
Today’s films play it safer, aware there are franchises and brand-names to protect, so what’s interesting about “Vacation” is that it holds on to the original’s acrid cynicism for the first 40 minutes or so before turning predictable and bland. There are some real, nasty laughs to be had here, but they’re front-loaded.
Ed Helms takes the role of Rusty Griswold — the now-grown son played by Anthony Michael Hall in the first film — and right away we have a problem. Helms is a fine comic actor, but there’s no edge to his playing and no rage to his character, which original star Chevy Chase provided in spades beneath his button-down exterior. Helms is just another Dopey Daddy, and Lord knows we’ve seen enough of those.
If anything, Christina Applegate steals the movie as Rusty’s wife, Debbie, resigning herself to the fact that she’ll never get to Paris like best friends Regina Hall and Keegan-Michael Key (of TV’s “Key & Peele”). Instead, Rusty decides to replicate that long-ago trip to Wally World, this time renting an Albanian Prancer in place of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster. Along for the ride are foul-mouthed younger son Kevin (Steele Stebbins) and sensitive, bullied older son James (Skyler Gisondo).
The writer-directors are John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein, stepping behind the camera for the first time and upping their game (slightly) from their scripts for the actively painful “Horrible Bosses” movies. They get off some sharp social-media jabs in the early scenes and a bit where Debbie revisits her old sorority and her past as “Do-Anything Debbie” is a near-masterpiece of bottom-scraping summer comedy.
A sidetrip to a hot spring that turns out to be raw sewage is the first sign that “Vacation” will be throwing in the towel: When in doubt, break out the poo. And the family’s arrival at the Southern mansion of sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) sets us up for the cringy/funny comedy stylings of Randy Quaid. Sadly, he’s nowhere to be seen; instead we get genial Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) as Audrey’s husband, a preening well-equipped TV weatherman. He’s also supposedly a rabid right-winger, not that the movie has the nerve to do anything with it.
As gross-out summer comedies go, “Vacation” has its yuks (in both senses), but they’re splattery and obvious. A showdown with four state cops at the Four Corners Monument is inspired in concept and a fizzle in the playing. James’s road-romance with a teen cutie (Catherine Missal) gives Helms some amusingly awkward chances to play wing-man but the subplot never develops. A running gag about a creepy trucker (Norman Reedus) is just . . . creepy. And the Wally World finale is downright pallid next to the first film’s freak-out. But I guess you can’t play hostage situations for comedy anymore, can you?
At least the shoutout to Christie Brinkley’s Ferrari Girl is given a good, sharp twist. And toward the end, Chase and Beverly D’Angelo turn up as the older Griswolds, and it really does feel a little like dropping in on mom and dad. It’s great to see D’Angelo again, but Chase looks terrible, puffy and a shade of pink not usually found in nature. We all know you can’t go home again, but this coarse retread proves you can’t even go back to Wally World.
Watch the trailer: