Vacation unafraid to go dark

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      Starring Ed Helms. Rated 14A.

      Remakes and sequels are mere cash grabs unless the remakers and sequelizers find some on-screen reason to bring back characters and situations—a new element, or even something old that was buried.

      The people behind Vacation have their work cut out for them, it being both a remake and a sequel. The film depicts Rusty Griswold, scion of Clark and Ellen Griswold from the 1983 original, growing up into the same sort of well-meaning disaster as his father and retracing his childhood road trip to Walley World with his own family.

      Conceptually, it’s a lazy idea, made even more obvious by casting Ed Helms as the milquetoast Rusty and Christina Applegate as the soccer mom with a secretly wild past.

      Scenes like their detour into a “hot springs” that is actually a sewage lagoon feel more inevitable than shocking. And then there is the brief reprise of Chevy Chase’s “bumbling idiot” routine, now entering its fourth decade of not being funny.

      Considering all there is not to like, why was I howling?

      First, writer-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein have taken the time to make an actual movie. Although the characters are corny and sort of one-note (conflicted WASP parents, squabbling kids in the back seat), their motivations drive the plot. It feels exaggerated but not unrecognizable, and that’s the difference between a story about characters you can understand and a series of vignettes.

      Secondly, the movie is willing to go dark. It proudly exploits its rating to steer the tiring Griswold saga from slapstick family comedies back into the National Lampoon aesthetic, that place where smart geeks blended satire with hideous violence, and just a soupçon of boobies.

      Vacation doesn’t get all the way back to Animal House, but it drives past and waves, and that’s fine.

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