— The cleverest, if not funniest, moment in this summer’s remake of 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation occurs when the family, headed by erstwhile patriarch Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms), the son of Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) sits around the table in Act I discussing the merits of re-visiting “the original vacation.” The slippage between the name of the movies and the noun describing the summer leisure activities depicted within them draws the new film into a nether world of meta-textuality. In favor of re-enacting the original vacation, Rusty wins the argument by merely suggesting that this family journey will be similar in some ways, but different in others.
Indeed, many of the film’s most memorable scenes involve the reworking of original moments from the 1983 film. Most bizarre, a sexy female in a sports car entices Rusty while he is driving, beginning to re-enact the roadway flirtation Chevy Chase’s Clark had with supermodel Christie Brinkley. However, unexpectedly and brutally, this “Ferrari Girl” is killed in a head-on collision with a truck when her distracted driving finds her in the oncoming lane of traffic.
American summer cinema has taken a most lamentable journey since 1983, when director Harold Ramis and screenwriter John Hughes were at the top of their comedic powers, lampooning not only 1950s American suburbanites, but the Reaganite culture around them. The 1983 Vacation is a comic attack on the Western, in which the family drives westward from Chicago, across the American southwest, only to arrive at their hyper-commodified destination, Walley World on a day it is inexplicably closed, in the middle of high tourist season.
The Ramis-Hughes parody of Disneyland is rendered compelling by the fact that Walt’s analogue, diminutive via the nickname, Wally, is played by Eddie Bracken, the great classical Hollywood comic actor most famous for his role of Norval Jones in Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). In the most powerful wartime farce in American film history, Bracken plays a nebbish whom the governor decrees patriarchal and potent, overwriting by political decree the fact that Norval’s girlfriend was impregnated by a nomadic soldier, Ratzykywatsky, and gave birth to sextuplets.
In the 1983 film, the family’s assault of the American frontier ends in failure, but, following Sturges, is redeemed comically. The aged Hollywood star, Bracken rescues, in more ways than one, Chevy Chase and his film. As with the personal invitation to enjoy the theme park proffered by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, Bracken personally accompanies the Griswold family on their fun-filled day at the moose park.
The re-imagined Vacation of 2013 takes a vicious turn away from classical Hollywood farce. When the next generation of Griswolds arrive in Southern California, the theme park is open for business and packed. Because they have arrived to find a financially thriving business, not a seemingly abandoned park, they have to wait in a four hour line to ride Rusty’s favorite roller coaster. The family dutifully does so, but just as it is their turn to board, an obnoxious man with an all-access, no waiting pass steps in front of the Griswolds. Immediately thereafter, the ride operator announces that the park is closing for the day. Driven over the edge, Rusty begins fighting with the one-percenter rich enough to be able to buy special passes so that his family doesn’t have to wait behind any of the huddled masses. When Rusty’s family joins in the fray, they defeat the villainous family, take the last car, and have a great time riding the coaster.
The new Vacation film transforms its progenitor’s comic critique of the Western into a straightforward defense of that genre’s traditions. In what Richard Slotkin calls “regeneration through violence,” the Western builds an American mythology on the notion that the land of the North American continent could be civilized only through forceful subjugation, of native peoples and of nature. The 2015 Vacation tries to end with a critique of American class stratification, but that project fails because the extreme cost of theme parks, from Disney onward, are only accessible to the well-off in the first place. All that remains is Rusty finding his masculine voice in his fists, which in turn redeems him as the patriarch when he leads his formerly reluctant and fractured family into battle. The original film’s regeneration through comedy vanishes, leaving us only with the bitter mythos of the Western, the bankrupt notion that the strong should cement their geographic place through aggression. In 2015, that is the last journey, leisure or otherwise, to regeneration that we Americans need.
– Walter Metz