Warner Bros. torch-passing reboot of the National Lampoon’s Vacation series bookends with PowerPoint credits sequences of vacation photos, both real and starring the film’s characters. Many appear innocuous and pleasant, until unfolding to reveal an uncomfortable or darkly humorous context. It frames the film between them, where grownup Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) attempts to rehash his original family trip to Walley World with his own brood, as a selectively edited memory. Rusty’s wife (Christina Applegate, given little to do) and sons (Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins) are even more dysfunctional than the previous Griswolds: she wants more passion and spontaneity back in the relationship; the elder son is an awkward, sensitive boy unwilling to defend himself against a younger brother whose sociopathy threatens to cross over into murder. Rusty insists, like his father before him, this Vacation will strengthen their bond, yet he steamrolls over their disinterest in his nostalgia.
The film, from Horrible Bosses scribes John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, toys with this self-critique: Rusty’s obsession with perfect moments is initially sad (he has the urge to keep up with the Joneses when another family is invited to dinner), but borders on creepy as the film progresses. When Gisondo’s guitar-playing teen chats up a girl who is clearly interested in him, Rusty inserts himself as a wingman, his smug grin leaving her with the impression he’s a pedophile (a subject revisited again and again, especially with a trucker who straps a teddy bear to the grille of his rig). When she runs off, he cluelessly assumes she wasn’t interested in his dweeb offspring.
Repeatedly, views other than his baffle and confuse Rusty. Staying for dinner at his sister (Leslie Mann)’s home, he sees her pleading her wealthy, hyper-masculine Texan husband (Chris Hemsworth) to be allowed to get a job and continues assuming they’re happily married. Rusty has to overhear his family’s complaints about their annual cabin trip before noticing their desperation in photographs. When learning of his wife’s wild years in college, he struggles to maintain the image of his family he’d rather have than face the reality of what it is.
Daley & Goldstein suggest Helms’ Rusty is emotionally scarred, unable to process his own memories. A third-act visit to his parents reveals Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) never recovered from his meltdown, at seeing Walley World closed for repairs all those years ago. With bulging eyes and what remains of his hair fraying in multiple directions like lightning, he’s an unsettling presence pockmarked with bitterness and suggesting the early signs of dementia. Rusty is unable to face this fact, only absorb his father’s perspective.
The film portrays the stop as a revitalizing moment, Rusty becoming more determined to reach Walley World after the preceding failures and his wife realizing she still loves him after all. Pecking order reestablished–with a few modest tweaks (the older brother finally learns he should be tormenting his younger sibling; Rusty decides to take his wife on the Paris trip she wanted)–they have the bonding moment Rusty desired. It’s a sham, though, achieved through belligerence and maintained by a husband/father holding all the purse strings. Behind the cutesy shit gags, sex farce, and callbacks/’subversions’ to the original film, an ugly truth unfolds.