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Vacation: Plus ça change...

Rating: **1/2

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VACATION
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein
STARS Ed Helms, Christina Applegate

Ed Helms and Chris Hemsworth in Vacation (Photo: Warner Bros.)
  • Ed Helms and Chris Hemsworth in Vacation (Photo: Warner Bros.)

There's a tendency to slap the label "comedy classic" on any guffaw-filled flick that emerged from the 1980s — Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Rhinestone (well, OK, maybe not that Sylvester Stallone-Dolly Parton atrocity) — but the truth is that only a fraction of that decade's highly touted output deserves such a heady classification. Many will vehemently disagree, but 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation doesn't quite make the grade: It's an extremely pleasant diversion with a few memorable bits and a likable cast, but true comic invention is hard to locate in the meandering screenplay by the late John Hughes.

For those who haven't actually seen it since the '80s, the plot finds good-natured clod Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) taking his brood — wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo), son Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and daughter Audrey (Dana Barron) — from Chicago to Los Angeles to spend some time at the theme park Walley World. While everyone else wants to fly there, Clark insists on driving, a decision that leads to a series of disasters for the Griswold clan. The movie's commercial success led to more adventures for the Griswolds: 1985's European Vacation, 1989's Christmas Vacation and 1997's Vegas Vacation. And now, 32 years after the original, we get Vacation, which includes the obligatory cameos by Chase and D'Angelo but shifts its attention to the now-grown Rusty (Ed Helms). Realizing that his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and sons James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) would like a break from the same log cabin he's been taking them every year for vacation, Rusty decides they will embark on a getaway that retraces the one he undertook as a kid, right down to the final destination point of Walley World. Yet as before, the trip is fraught with unexpected peril, whether it's a toxic dump that's mistaken for a natural spring or a whitewater rafting trip overseen by a suicidal guide (Charlie Day).

Sweep the warm and fuzzy nostalgia aside, and the '83 model and this new one are comparable, mixing R-rated laughs with a semi-sincere message about the bonds that hold a family together. Of course, the vulgarity is more pronounced in this new version, but then again, so are many of the laughs. For the most part, this is the sort of assembly-line comedy that's de rigueur these days, but it does possess a few elevating graces. James and Kevin aren't the usual dull, towheaded boys we see in movies but two idiosyncratic sorts, with Gisondo practically turning James' mewling into an art form and Stebbins playing up his character's near-psychotic tendencies. And just as hunky Chris Pine tapped into his comic potential with his delightful turns in Into the Woods and the otherwise insufferable Horrible Bosses 2, here it's fellow stud Chris Hemsworth who earns laughs as the conservative husband of Rusty's sister Audrey (Leslie Mann). There are dick jokes and there are dick jokes, and then there's Hemsworth's dick joke, potent enough to make even Thor himself thunder with approval from on high.

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