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Ed Helms and Chris Hemsworth go overboard on the Western wear in Vacation.

Here’s the problem: Warner Bros. is now trying to make Judd Apatow comedies. That’s certainly not a bad idea, given how much money and good press those films have raked in for Universal Studios. The likes of Superbad, Bridesmaids, Neighbors, and Spy haven’t all had his name attached to them, but they’ve all borne the imprint of his distinctive method of casting funny actors and letting them improvise their way through a roughed-out script. They’ve become the dominant strain in American comedy. Warners must have thought, “We know which actors are funny. We can do that, too.”

The thing is, Apatow’s method is a lot more rigorous than it looks. Whether the ad-libbed jokes are coming from Seth Rogen or Kristen Wiig or Melissa McCarthy, there’s always a structure underneath them. Story points and character issues are worked out well in advance. Apatow and his directors don’t simply stick good comic actors in front of a camera and expect hilarious things to happen on their own. Unfortunately, Warners appears to think that it actually is that simple. We’ve seen the results with the ill-conceived Hot Pursuit a few months ago and now in Vacation, which is even worse.

This is a sequel to the National Lampoon’s Vacation series that flourished in the 1980s, but while Clark and Ellen Griswold (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo) do put in an appearance here, the bulk of the film belongs to their son Rusty (Ed Helms), a regional airline pilot who has a family of his own in Indiana. When his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) starts making noises about being bored by the same lakeside cabin where he always takes the family during his downtime, Rusty resolves to take them instead to Walley World, the Southern California amusement park that he and his dad used to visit. He plans to drive there in an Albanian minivan that looks the same from the front as it does from the back, gets a fraction of a mile to the gallon, and has GPS that gives instructions only in Korean. What could go wrong?

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Well, the writing-directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein could make the Griswolds get into way predictable hijinks, like the family wading into a pond at Hot Springs that’s full of raw sewage or Rusty and Debbie being caught trying to have sex on the Four Corners monument. They could also make Rusty repeatedly look like an idiot, whether he’s slamming his arm in a car door to demonstrate its sensor or inadvertently coming off like a pedophile while trying to help his older son (Skyler Gissondo) flirt with a pretty girl (Catherine Missal). And they or the actors portraying the Griswolds could make the family seem to actively detest one another — Rusty’s younger son (Steele Stebbins) is a violent psychopath whose idea of fun is wrapping a plastic bag around his brother’s head and choking him with it. Then again, the movie seems to think this is cutely amusing, too. Helms has played earnest, overwhelmed dweebs to good effect in Cedar Rapids and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but here he’s so focused on the next punchline that he turns Rusty into a loathsome petty tyrant.

A formidable-looking lineup of comic talent is in the supporting cast: Leslie Mann, Keegan-Michael Key, Ron Livingston, Charlie Day, Michael Peña. They’re all sadly wasted. The only part of the movie that draws any laughter is an interlude set in Plano, where Rusty goes to visit his sister and her super-wealthy, super-conservative, super-well-endowed TV weatherman husband (Chris Hemsworth). We’ve all been so busy staring at Hemsworth’s abs and biceps that we haven’t noticed that he’s a really funny guy. He invests this potentially hateable part with an oblivious buoyancy that’s authentically charming. And if you like staring at his abs and biceps, this role gives you plenty of opportunity to do that, too.

The filmmakers do come up with a few clever touches like having only music on the soundtrack during the Griswolds’ near-fatal rafting trip down the Grand Canyon’s rapids. However, Vacation is so revolting that you’ll likely have checked out of the movie before then. The original Vacation movies don’t hold up well at all today, but the new one could have succeeded with the right handling. No such luck.

 

[box_info]Vacation
Starring Ed Helms and Christina Applegate. Written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein. Rated R.[/box_info]

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