The opening credits sequence for “Vacation” assembles a medley from the website Awkward Family Photos. As each seemingly harmless picture is slowly revealed, the more hilarious and/or offensive it becomes.
The ruthlessly funny “Vacation” functions pretty much the same way. When the Griswolds of a new generation embark on a Midwest-to-West Coast trek, every innocuous stop transforms into its own awkward family incident.
At the center of this cursed excursion stands Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms, the sixth actor to portray the character). Remembering how his father, Clark (Chevy Chase, who gets a cameo), once drove the clan to Walley World amusement park, the grown Rusty becomes convinced the same trip could bring his own household together.
The Griswolds need something to cure their malaise. Wife Debbie (a game Christina Applegate) has curbed her wild impulses but dreads any more outings to their Lake Huron cabin. Teenage son James (Skyler Gisondo) is a sensitive musician who travels with both a dream journal and whimsy log but has yet to kiss a girl. He is bullied relentlessly by Kevin (Steele Stebbins), his foul-mouthed and treacherous little brother.
They hop into their rented 2015 Tartan Prancer — “the Albanian version of Honda,” Rusty says — to trek 2,560 miles to California. (Few movies have ever gotten so much comedic mileage out of a car, a Euro nightmare with six ashtrays and an electrical plug that appears designed for an outlet made on another planet.)
Does this set up a total rip-off of the beloved 1983 predecessor, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”?
“The new vacation will stand on its own,” Rusty says in a bit of self-referential assurance.
And it does. That’s because screenwriting team and first-time directors John Francis Daley (the main kid from TV’s “Freaks and Geeks” and a co-star on “Bones”) and Jonathan M. Goldstein take completely different approaches to any scene that mimics the original.
Take one of the first film’s most enduring sequences: the trip to visit relatives. That led to Coolidge, Kan., the home of trashy cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid, unable to reprise the role due to his incarceration).
In the new “Vacation,” Rusty visits wealthy sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) at her Texas ranch, where she lives with her husband, a meteorologist Adonis (Chris Hemsworth). The fact that he’s an egotistical exhibitionist who constantly questions Rusty’s manhood leads to one queasy encounter after another.
From Arkansas through Arizona, the Griswolds’ romanticized spree unravels, as they’re thwarted by opportunistic locals, irrational tour guides and bickering law enforcement officers. They’re also pursued by an unseen trucker, who’s apparently offended by Kevin’s use of the CB radio — a standard feature on all Prancers.
Like Chase in the original series, Helms has a knack for portraying a fundamentally decent guy striving to keep his composure when everything conspires against him.
Helms’ characters seem to believe themselves more important than they are — like dentist Stu in “The Hangover” trilogy, who assumes he’s as respected as a doctor, or salesman Andy on TV’s “The Office,” who cites his Ivy League education at any juncture.
In “Vacation,” Helms works as a pilot for lowly Econoware Airlines, taking passengers on 18-minute flights to South Bend. Early in the movie he’s snubbed by a dismissive captain (Ron Livingston) of an international airline, which leads to an epic confrontation.
“Vacation” figures out how to juggle these big breakdown moments with the smaller ones built around character quirks. Even when the R-rated shenanigans veer into pure gross-out territory, the amusing family dynamics keep things grounded.
“They always say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” Rusty tells his dad.
“Ahhh, the journey sucks,” his dad counters.
That may be true of the journey but not of this “Vacation.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R for crude and sexual content and language throughout, brief graphic nudity
Opens at 7 tonight