It’s ’80s nostalgia summer at the movies, so naturally it’s time to go on “Vacation” again.
This is not a reboot of the 1983 comedy hit “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” although the new film is also about the hapless Griswold family traveling cross-country from their Chicago home to the fictional California theme park named Walley World. It’s not quite a sequel, either, despite the fact that Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo make appearances as original Griswold parents Clark and Ellen.
You could call the new “Vacation” “The Next Generation,” as it’s about Clark and Ellen’s now-adult son, Rusty, hauling his own family through one calamity after another on their way to the site of his misremembered holiday fun.
“We’re trying to be our own franchise,” explains Christina Applegate, who plays Rusty’s wife, Debbie. “I’ve said to people that we’re more like a distant cousin. And then when people say ‘What’s the plot?’ I say, ‘We’re going to Walley World’ and we all have a big laugh, because it is the same plot but with different people and a different type of comedy.”
It’s actually raunchier, in the current R-rated way, than the John Hughes-written “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” (1985) and “Christmas Vacation” (1989). (The 1997 movie “Vegas Vacation” was made without the late Hughes’ input.) The new comedy initially sounded like sacrilege to Ed Helms, who nonetheless agreed to play Rusty.
“The ‘Vacation’ movies mean an awful lot to me,” says Helms, a mainstay of the “Hangover” series, the most successful R-rated comedy franchise of all time. “They were very precious for me, which is why when I was first approached about doing this I wasn’t very interested. I just didn’t think it needed to be messed with in any way. But I got the script and once I realized that this is actually Rusty’s movie, not a reboot of Clark but a whole new chapter in the Griswold mythology, it changed everything.”
“Vacation’s” script was written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, whose other screenplays include “Horrible Bosses” and its sequel, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” and, although they refuse to confirm it, reportedly the next “Spider-Man” relaunch. “Vacation” is also the team’s feature directing debut.
“We have never seen them,” Goldstein says — jokingly — about the earlier “Vacation” films.
“We are planning to see them at some point; we hear good things,” Daley adds. “No. Yes, we are very aware of the original, and we knew that it was going to be a challenge to pay our respects, but also create our own movie.”
To that end, homages to “National Lampoon’s Vacation” films are kept to a minimum, and at the point where Rusty proposes the Walley World trip to unenthusiastic Debbie and their two boys, sensitive adolescent James (Skyler Gisondo) and his foul-mouthed, bullying little brother Kevin (Steele Stebbins), their collective, audience-mirroring response is why would anyone want to go there again.
It’s more about the journey, though, and as the family travels in a bizarre Albanian minivan, they discover that Debbie was quite the train wreck in her college days, hot springs can be pretty disgusting, and Rusty’s sister Audrey’s (Leslie Mann) perfect marriage to a heroically endowed Texas weatherman (Chris Hemsworth from “Thor”) may not be as impressive as it appears.
“We liked the idea of doing an R-rated family comedy, which is rare; you don’t see a lot of those,” Daley explains. “There are inherent challenges that come with it, but if you’re able to navigate them, I think it can ultimately be more gratifying than if it was about a group of friends. There is that relatable bond in having a family that everyone can see part of themselves in.”
Applegate, a veteran of the taboo-breaking sitcom “Married ... with Children,” arguably performs “Vacation’s” most outrageous acts. She thinks it was important, however, that the comedy didn’t completely detour into “Hangover” territory.
“I think we’ve gotten to a how-are-we-going-to-top-that point in comedy,” she observes, then holds up a cellphone. “We have this thing, y’know? Everyone’s been exposed to everything that you could be exposed to. You type in ‘dog food’ and then you get, like, dog porn. There’s no escaping shock value, and I think that what the Johns did, by not being too gross but actually finding a way to shock you but tickle you at the same time, was a brilliant stroke.”
That said, it was Applegate’s idea for Debbie to do the Chug Run. (We’ll leave what that involves to your imagination, since the movie certainly doesn’t.)
“I wanted to give Debbie an interesting backstory and some edge, and make her a modern mom,” the actress says. “We’re in 2015; she’s a 40-year-old mom who went through the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, Y2K ... I mean, the women I know who are my age talk differently than our mothers, and we behave differently and parent differently — and we all have been to the bottom and back. I thought it would be interesting to represent that sort of modern mom that is out there right now.”
As for the equivalent modern dad, Helms says that Rusty does and doesn’t resemble Clark in about equal measure.
“There are some meaningful similarities, which are some of the more macro character aspects,” he points out. “Like a relentless optimism, an unfathomable love of his family, and also a very misguided need to keep his family together all the time. I also think that Rusty and Clark share a kind of repression and denial, and that creates a few blind spots that prevent them from seeing what’s really going on around them.”
The differences between Clark and Rusty really just reflect the differences between Chase and Helms, the actor figures.
“We sort of bring ourselves to these characters, and that’s just a little different energy,” he continues. “Rusty was also written with a little more vulnerability than Clark, which is a reflection of where storytelling is now compared to 30 years ago.”
Helms describes actually working with Chase as a dream come true, and co-director Daley, who gave up his long-running acting role on TV’s “Bones” to make his first movie, says Chase “has still got it. It was a surreal joy to watch him embody Clark again.”
And everyone from “Vacation,” children of the ’80s that they are, still worship Hughes.
“We’re all middle-aged and reminiscent right now,” Applegate reckons. “These movies we’re seeing now are the things that made us feel really good about our youth. I mean, if they were to redo a ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ that would be right in my wheelhouse. Or ‘Sixteen Candles’ ...
“No,” she stops herself. “Can’t redo ‘Sixteen Candles.’ Just don’t touch it, that’s where I draw the line. That’s how people feel about ‘Vacation.’ Isn’t that funny?”
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Vacation opens in theaters July 29.
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