Review: STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015)

Exactly 1/2 of F. Gary Gray’s STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is thrilling, top-tier musical/biopic entertainment. It crackles with near-literal electricity from the first scenes of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) dodging likely-impending death in a drug deal gone bad only “thanks” to the arrival of an even more fearsome LAPD right up through the formation, creation and pop-explosion of N.W.A and climaxes with a blowout setpiece where a live performance of “Fuck tha Police” in Detroit (which local cops had warned them not to perform) erupts into a riot that ends with N.W.A arrested yet symbolically victorious.

It’s some of the coolest, most assured “mythic history” filmmaking of the year, alive with righteous anger, the thrill of creative inspiration and authentic-feeling early-90s Los Angeles milieu… and then that rapturous Detroit sequence concludes and the whole production slips back down to just “decent” territory – clearly unable to find a natural ending other than speeding through an at once over-sanitized and over-cranked highlight reel – focused mainly on contract disputes and paperwork, no less – to reach Eazy’s AIDS death in 1995.

Ironically, what consigns the film to an almost-classic is an unwillingness to admit that the specific moment in hip-hop history N.W.A loomed so large in only really existed “authentically” for just that: Only a moment. Without the (explicit) truth of that shift up on screen, the film’s second half just can’t bring itself to be as raw about the end of the myth as the first is about the creation: Even if you don’t know the story beforehand, it’s easy to feel the missing spaces where Dr. Dre’s (Corey Hawkins) history of abusing women, Ice Cube’s (O’Shea Jackson, the real-life Cube’s own son) immediate and savvy transition to Hollywood player and any other 90s rappers who weren’t part of N.W.A’s immediate orbit are supposed to fit – to say nothing of the increasingly-inconsistent characterizations.

Dre somehow “doesn’t realize” that his Death Row Records partner Suge Knight is a monster until it’s almost too late? Cube is sharp enough to know he’s being taken advantage of by N.W.A’s resident svengali Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) but not precisely how or well-enough to let it happen twice? Those are just the most incongruous and “sticking out” of the film: It’s also odd to watch the infamous back-and-forth “diss track” feud that followed Cube’s departure be played entirely sans-irony, as though N.W.A’s played-for-the-press beefs of the 90s really were a real extension of the “gangsta” lifestyle none of them but Eazy had actually lived rather than the genesis of the pro-wrestling-style play-acting of inter-label “beefs” as actual gangland feuds that quickly became a staple of the genre.

Were the film (or, rather, it’s producer/subjects) willing to “own up” to that narrative, there’d be room for a grand rise/fall/ressurection story worthy of Gray’s filmmaking and the (mostly) newcomer cast’s performances: N.W.A ignites a revolution in the hip-hop genre by bringing in an inner-city authenticity, but (perhaps as a darkly-ironic side-effect of them largely being pretenders to the scene) it quickly metastasizes into a creeping artifice that each member has varying difficulties ultimately escaping. That’s not to say that the narrative it has, i.e. a crew of outsider-artists negotiating fame and fortune without the survival-skills artists on more traditional career-trajectories are afforded, is “bad” – just that the one closer to the truth (and peeking through at the margins) would’ve been even better. Again, that scene after scene of rappers leafing through stacks of paper is as compelling as it is is a credit to the film.

For all the (by now) well-worn talk of what the film omits (Dre’s numerous abuses of women, Cube’s tracks inciting violence against Korean grocers in Black neighborhoods, the generalized homophobia rampant in 90s hip-hop); it’s mainly Dre’s character who stands out as an issue: Cube’s seemingly natural-born yet uneven business savvy works overall for an arc (towards the end he’s pounding out the screenplay to FRIDAY at roughly the same point that Dre is nurturing newcomers Tupac and Snoop Dog) and since Eazy isn’t around to object he gets to be a “full” character; but Dre remains an awkwardly inscrutable presence: His character is the most (blatantly) sanitized, but it was impossible for me not to imagine the real present-day Dr. Dre seeing it as an act of extreme transparency: “Okay,  it took a long time but I’m finally okay admitting openly that I was a music geek pretending to be a gangsta.” …while meanwhile the audience is going “Dre, we knew that. Now, how ’bout all those women you beat up? And also, nobody believes you didn’t know Suge was The Devil.”

So, it’s a flawed film; but enough of it is great that it’s also a pretty damn good one. Having all that lightning-in-a-bottle 90s West Coast hip-hop on the soundtrack certainly helps, but Gray makes even the least authentic moments (Eazy finding his rap-voice and donning his signature shades in the same moment is framed like a superhero origin sequence) feel alive and vibrant; though it’s perhaps telling that the most arresting shot in the film – a pair of formerly-rival L.A. gang members advancing on cops during the Rodney King riots holding up conjoined blue and red bandanas – doesn’t feature the main cast.

Perhaps, even, it says something profound that a group of young black men once declared (literal) enemies of the state over their music can get the kind of self-mythologizing biopic usually afforded only to aging white musicians: We’ve seen the “Wait, I can express myself creatively!?” moment of inspiration in hundreds of films, but seldom from characters who look like this or come from here – the realization that Dre telling Eazy “That shit was dope!” when he half-stumbles into a real rythym during a recording might be the first time he’s received praise for something like that in his life an instantly iconic exchange.

Either way, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is viscerally satisfying entertainment, and without question one of the few 2015 films we’ll absolutely still be talking about years from now.

Six Months Later, I Am Alive

So. Today is exactly six months to the day that I was abruptly, without forewarning (rudely and rather unprofessionally, actually, now that I reflect on it) informed that my near-decade (8 years!) of tenure at The Escapist was at an end – just like that.

I have no interest in elaborating any further than the original posts on the matter in terms of “what went down” or “the REAL story,” except to say that I have in fact become a bit more “enlightened” as to opinions held and things said about me and my work by… “persons” (or, perhaps, just “person”) that I had naively considered friends or, at least, good-faith business partners that leave me deeply suspicious about the circumstances of my departure and profoundly disappointed in the behavior of… “persons,” I’ll leave it at that.

The six months since have been difficult. Film Criticism is a difficult career to make money in, and it requires an erratic schedule that makes secondary employment equally difficult to maintain. In addition, my personal life was rocked by a extremely painful and drawn-out family issue that nearly-drained what resolve I had been left with. And while yes, I can credit the decency and heartfelt support of my fans with my surviving all of this… the truth of the matter is that I don’t think I would have yet made it without the support of my colleagues, my friends, my family and one special person  (’nuff said) in particular who was a light in dark times when I needed one most.

I won’t say that it’s been easy: As “newly free” to work on other projects and give free time to my loved ones as I feel, I miss the reliable routine (and yes, the reliable paycheck) of Escape to The Movies. I miss The Big Picture achingly, and it breaks my heart every time a fan tells me how much those shows meant to them and how much they miss them, too. I had a wonderful space where I had an extraordinary amount of freedom (for awhile, anyway…) to say pretty-much whatever I wanted and have it published/broadcast on a major (or, rather, it used to be…) website – a privilege I worked hard to not abuse – and I am under no illusions that I’ll easily find a space that good again. I am still pained, however fleetingly, to be without it and, yes, I have nothing but hatred in my heart for every force and circumstance that led to it’s loss. That’s probably a little immature, but it is what it is. I work hard to expel “pain” from my psyche, but the memories of people and things who have wronged me and mine I keep for a long, long time.

BUT! Fortunately, my propensity to not forgive does not keep me from moving on. And as I survey the last six months and the place I’ve come to, I feel a sense of overwhelming pride (and gratitude, to those who have helped) at where I have “arrived;” even though I have no intention of resting on my laurels or declaring that this is “good enough” – as some in my life have no doubt tired of hearing me say, “It’s NEVER enough!” – this doesn’t look too shabby:

THE MOVIEBOB PATREON is holding steady and allowing me to produce and deliver content to fans and Patrons while also maintaining a livable-life.

Escape to The Movies is gone, but MOVIEBOB REVIEWS are alive, well and popular on YouTube.

REALLY THAT GOOD, a longform film-appreciation series that was an unrealized dream-project for years, is slowly becoming what I wanted it to be.

THE GAME OVERTHINKER, my original passion-project, wrapped up after 100 episodes on MY terms, the way I wanted it to.

I have re-affirmed my longstanding relationship with ScrewAttack – the web outlet that was the first to give me a shot as a viable content-creator back in the day and has been by far the most fair, honest and open business partners I have dealt with in my professional career. THE ALL-NEW GAME OVERTHINKER lives on as part of this relationship, and after a strong-showing in a six-episode “pilot” order, I am happy to announce that the series has been given a full bi-weekly order through 2016!

Speaking of ScrewAttack, they are also responsible for helping the legacy of The Big Picture live on through IN BOB WE TRUST – ALSO newly-blessed with a full bi-weekly order through 2016!

More recently, you may have heard that my review of PIXELS became a viral sensation, amassing nearly 2 million views and counting and even being featured on national stages like THE HOWARD STERN SHOW.

Locally, the PIXELS review landed me a guest-spot on one of Boston’s #1 radio shows, TOUCHER & RICH…

…And, perhaps my favorite “WTF am I doing HERE!?” moment of this most-recent roller-coaster: I was profiled in THE NEW YORKER.

And it goes beyond all that as well. The success of MOVIEBOB REVIEWS and the other projects has put me into contact with sources and opportunities that could well mean the next logical BIG steps of my career – including developments and avenues that I had never even considered open to me.

Make no mistake: I do not consider myself “back” or even close to “comfortable” – whatever that means. I have always had my eyes on bigger things, bigger opportunities and the capacity to dream bigger than I can even concieve of now… and then achieve those dreams so that I might conceive of even more. Frankly, I don’t want to stop until I’m living whatever the film/gaming/geek-media version of Alexander weeping at the realization that there are no worlds left to conquer is (though, for now, regular access to a heated pool would be just swell.)

But I am happier than I expected to be six months ago. I am more stable than I expected to be six months ago. And despite how much I truly miss what was, warts and all, a job I really loved… I am on-balance better off than I was six months ago.

If you were among the folks who stepped up to dance on my “grave” when things looked bleakest… I can only say that I hope your life has gotten better from whatever pathetic state you must have been in for that to be a viable entertainment option for you – though if it hasn’t, chances are you and misery deserve each other and I hope that seeing me not only survive but thrive causes you inexplicable suffering.

If you are among the “persons” whose decision-making contributed to me being (however briefly) “professionally-unmoored,” shall we say… I hope the knowledge that the success I’m having and the career-growth I’m experiencing could also have benefited you and your outlets, but now won’t. To be perfectly blunt, in fact: I hope the traffic, publicity and mainstream press attention for that independently-produced PIXELS review makes you GAG.

If you are among the people who supported me through this time personally… well, you already know how I feel, but thank you and I love you, anyway.

If you are among the fans, followers, viewers and Patreon supporters who’ve stuck with me and helped this ship through choppy waters: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. My I be ever worthy of you.

And… that’s really all I’ve got to say at this time, save to note that in a few months I’m going to be an uncle for the first time in my life; and maybe it’s old-fashioned but that sort of thing throws what matters into sharp relief. Six months later, I am undefeated. I am okay. I love and am loved. I am moving onward and upward. And I am alive.


Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.

-Bob.

Incomplete Thoughts on STONEWALL

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One has to imagine that Roland Emmerich is genuinely surprised to be catching “friendly fire” over his gay rights historical drama STONEWALL. Sure, controversy was probably something he considered innevitable – even welcome, given the film’s clear “Hey, awards season: Look at me!!!” Fall release and low-key hype machine – but surely the long-time “out” gay filmmaker and activist didn’t expect to find himself under fire from elements within the LGBTQ community itself. To the degree that Emmerich self-identifies with the heroes of films, it’s not hard to imagine that he feels a bit like an alternate-universe version of Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore from INDEPENDENCE DAY: One who, upon delivering The Greatest Battle Speech Ever, found himself facing not applause but a chorus of indifference and even outrage: “Stuff your battle-plan, man!” “Who says we WANT to fight the aliens!?” “Since when are YOU in charge!?”

Now, as a straight white guy, I have just about the least authority imaginable about what anyone else should be upset about. But, since I am a film writer who recently released an entire video that (partly) deals with Emmerich as a political filmmaker and will almost certainly end up reviewing/covering STONEWALL a month or so from now, I think it’s at least worth putting some (pre-viewing) thoughts on the matter down while we’re all still considering what’s to be made of this one.
It’s an old joke that the worst thing that happens to a political party (or movement) is that it wins, because once the overall goal of victory is achieved the uneasy alliances (“strange bedfellows” and all that) have time to settle in, get comfortable and re-focus on all of the differences they’d temporarily set aside to take down their common adversary; often leading to renewed infighting and (sometimes) a weakening of newly-captured power. Relevant case in point: With events like the Supreme Court gay-marriage decision and an ever-growing public acceptance-tolerance thereof seemingly to signal a major generational win for LGBTQ activism; the “G” has found itself at odds with an L, B, T and Q who, rather than join in the victory celebration, would instead like to start talking about their own less “socially comfortable” concerns – the ones that they feel G forced/allowed to be “back-burnered” in favor of more immediately-attainable “foot in the door” goals.
STONEWALL (the movie-to-be and the actual event that inspired it) are uniquely emblematic of this schism. For those who don’t know (and that a lot of people still don’t is both the reason to make the movie and the reason to be upset about what form the movie takes) the story goes like this: Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in Greenwich Village, NY. On June 28 1969, an aggressive but by no means atypical police raid on the establishment spilled out in a mini-spectacle on the street that drew a growing crowd of onlookers. So goes the “historical legend” (an as recreated in the film’s trailer) a young female patron being beaten by the police demanded “Why don’t you guys do something!?” of the crowd, a which point a violent clash with the police began that ran on and off for several nights. In the aftermath, the Gay Liberation Front officially formed and the modern Gay Rights movement was essentially born.
That’s the “pop-history” version of the Stonewall story, and you can see why it so appeals to Emmerich’s sensibilities (his filmmaking sensibilities, I mean. Given that he was a gay teenager himself when Stonewall was news the personal appeal seems evident): His favorite story/theme is that of an individual (or an “individualist” identity) being woken up to the need for action on behalf of the greater good by an impossible-to-ignore inciting incident – think Earth’s nations realizing the need for global-unity in the face of extinction in INDEPENDENCE DAY, or Mel Gibson’s “I just want to keep MY land and family safe” avenging dad in THE PATRIOT, or the entire plots of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW or 2012. So it makes sense that his version of dramatizing STONEWALL is a story about a young gay man mainly looking to find his own safety/freedom in (relatively) tolerant urban New York being galvanized into revolutionary activism by being onhand for the “Stonewall Riots.”
And from the trailer, that looks like exactly the movie Emmerich has made. Supposedly, he’s been looking to make it for more than a decade, which might explain how old-fashioned a lot of this looks; right down to the TITANIC-style “make-believe people amidst the real history” plotting and the “Johnny All-American, but gay” lead hero – which is exactly the stuff a lot of people are having a problem with.
Granted, no one outside of the studio and filmmakers have seen the finished film, but the lack of real historic figures of the moment and the Hollywood-handsome white hero is enough to set off alarm bells that were already set to “skeptical” among many contemporary activists. The main issue: While it became the “battle flag” for the “mainstream” gay-rights movement, the events at Stonewall were largely driven by the actions of LGBTQ women and particularly transgender women of color (the specific crime the bar was being raided for was “cross-dressing,” which was illegal at the time) – many of whom were not wide-eyed innocents waiting to be caught-up in the sweep of history but rather established activists in the own right. 
This is essentially the recurring problem with the history of social-activism: The people who successfully media-manage social-movements understand that “Ordinary Person Rises To Greatness Thrust Upon Them” is a better, more “useful” story than the alternative (see: Rosa Parks was already a hard-working Civil Rights figure for almost a decade before the bus incident, not an unassuming everywoman who spoke up in the right moment), particularly in the way that it makes joining-up feel more welcoming to Johnny-Come-Lateleys: “I am ALSO only just now waking up to this injustice!” This means that the people who do the hard/dirty work end up getting the historical short-stick, and in this case it means that Stonewall, as a “story,” is a longtime sticking-point for many in the “everybody else” wing of LGBTQ activism (and amid the additional myriad racial and class divisions therein) who’ve long felt that the movement has hitched it’s win/loss narrative to issues of interest to “straight-acceptable” gay white men to the detriment of others’ interests – “Hey, we’re all happy for a win, but not ALL of us had ‘being able to make it official and Mom & Dad being cool with it now because they enjoy those nice boys on MODERN FAMILY’ as The Endgame here.”

So it’s beyond understandable that for those same people, Emmerich’s STONEWALL positioning a fictional “generic” white dude (specifically, Jeremy Irvine as a studly Midwestern farm kid who flees homophobic persecution by his family/peers for the NYC gay scene) as it’s main character is a continuation of “mainstream” (read: white/cisgender/male) gay activism co-opting their efforts while leaving them out of the subsequent decision-making. Hell, it’s beyond “understandable,” it’s agreeable – even if you’re going to go with a fictional lead to give you greater room to wring drama from the narrative, why does it have to be this fictional lead? Why not build the story around Ray Castro (the only “official” gay man actually arrested in the original riots) or Marsha P. Johnson (a New York drag queen already locally-famous before Stonewall) or Sylvia Rivera (a transgender activist and real-life GLF founding-member)? Are we really still, in 2015, assuming that a movie can’t reach the biggest possible audience (and Emmerich’s activist-filmmaking is always about getting The Message to “the masses”) unless the audience-POV character looks like an archetypal handsome caucasian Prom King type?
On the other hand… I remain unconvinced that disappointment at how overly-conventional the film’s story looks (like it or not, “look-conventional, message-radical” is Emmerich’s default-setting for political filmmaking) is enough to indict it for “erasure,” particularly with some kind of malicious intent. It would be one thing if the film was setting out to explicitly say “Marsha, Ray Castro, Sylvia Rivera etc. weren’t the REAL heroes here – it was actually this white guy we made up!”, that’d be monstrous, a clear case of outright malice against marginalized LGBTQ persons and the truth (and before you scoff: Emmerich’s previous historical drama was about how William Shakespeare wasn’t actually William Shakespeare) …but that doesn’t appear to be the film that’s been made.
There is such a thing as historical fiction, and one of the ways it’s most often employed is to give a narrative “arc” to real events without having to compromise the often “un-narrative-ness” of actual people’s lives (the “fake” character gets the easy-to-follow 3-act-structure storyline, the “real” people he/she encounters are able to be themselves.) Another is the “mythic history” route, where the broad-strokes events are real but the people are made-up, usually as avatars of collective groups/ideas important to the time. STONEWALL appears to be splitting the difference: Johnson, Castro and other real-life figures are a part of the cast, but the main “hero” and his (notably diverse-looking) friends/allies are essentially symbolic stand-ins for “every” non-political LGBTQ person spurred to higher action by the events, “every” one who was unsure about that, “every” ally who joined the cause, etc. Again: It is a problem in itself that the film resorts to a white male (fictional) perspective of what was largely not a white male story; but this isn’t an inherently “invalid” approach to this film.
Obviously, this is all hypothetical until the movie actually comes out, but for now you can count me (with reservations) in the “wait and see” camp. I can see where/why people are upset, and even now you can see potentially-problematic elements baked into the final product (the trailer makes it look like the brick Irvine’s character throws is what “ignites” the riot, which would be both dramatically-cheezy and a provable rewriting of actual history, where it’s Johnson whose reputed to have thrown the first brick); but on the other hand I can’t not be a little bit optimistic about at least the “idea” that STONEWALL can even be imagined as a viable mainstream “crowd pleaser” issue-movie at this point. 
Surely, the mere fact that a major-release “Where Pride began”-themed movie, complete with trailer-narration borrowed from The President of The United States, exists can be cause for (at least) admiration while also noting both its individual and broader systemic flaws at least until there’s an actual full film to examine, can’t it? That’s not rhetorical, I’m asking because, like I said at the beginning, I don’t equipped with the proper experience and perspective to have a “strong” opinion here one way or another: Does the obvious eye-rolling “Oh, come ON!” casting of the lead and the way it evokes broader historical instances of erasing the contributions of trans persons, women and people of color from the gay-rights narrative “indict” the whole film in and of itself, or is it possible for the finished product to have virtues (being a good movie, getting at least the basic thrust of the story in front of a huge worldwide audience) that mitigate those imperfections? My instinct is more in line with the second option, but 
STONEWALL opens in U.S. theatres September 25th.

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Life Goals

What’s this? Oh, nothing – just a write-up about/interview-with yours truly in THE NEW YORKER – only one of the most respected publications… pretty much ever, really.

Do I feel good about this? You bet your ass I do. But I feel even better about THIS passage making it into print:

Donald Trump, for instance, gives ranters a bad name. “Fuck that guy,” Chipman said.”

My work here is done.

Review: VACATION (2015)

This review made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.

Despite the knowing self-mockery already displayed in the trailers, I feel like a certain amount of the new VACATION’s success is going to depend on how audiences (in the U.S. at least) feel about its relationship to the VACATION franchise – not in terms of “continuity,” but in terms of a vague sense of tonal-rightness: Of the now five “canonical” films in the series, on the first and third are in regular rotation, but they cast a long shadow over 80s and 90s comedy. People who’ve never even seen a VACATION movie feel they “know” what one is and/or should be, and I wonder if the “danger” for this continuation is that it’s aiming squarely for the darker, more mean-spirited original… which I’ve long suspected has been deposed as the defining entry in the series by the more sentimentally-michevious CHRISTMAS VACATION.

The question of whether or not this new VACATION is any good or not, apart from whether audiences will actually embrace it, is a more complicated matter…

The original VACATION is a bizarre animal of a movie, stuck partway between the winding-down 70s vibe of coked-out, sexually-charged anarchy comedy and the revving-up of the glossy, high-concept vibe that would define the 80s. It’s inspiration was a famously pitch-black short-story from John Hughes, “Vacation ’58,” that became a sensation in the pages of The National Lampoon. But where Hughes’ story was a backwards-looking dressing-down of the mythology of post-WWII American Nuclear Family (related in dryly unself-conscious manner by the family’s young son, it ends with the father being arrested after attempting to murder Walt Disney and the family not really caring all that much) the eventual film is about the Boomers who did that very dressing-down now trying to remake the myth and failing spectacularly. 

Chevy Chase’s Clark W. Griswold Jr. was a pathetic idiot, yes, but there was weird nobility in his idiocy. Exactly smart enough to know he was stupid and be constantly working to conceal that fact under quick-wit and an almost heroic degree of false confidence. He was the id of the lie that was the (then) just-beginning Reagan Era personified – the lie that if white Boomers would just abandon their “radicalism” for Fortress Suburbia they’d be allowed to remake a “real” version of the All-American childhoods most of them never got to have. His film-length breakdown as the truth of this situation becomes inescapable is the all-important theme that makes VACATION more than just a string of repeating “Well this seems pleasant… no it doesn’t” setup/punchline sequences; and what makes CHRISTMAS VACATION the true sequel is that we see that theme pay off as Clark learns stop chasing an extension of that lie and build his own happiness.
This new VACATION indeed gets back to the spirit of the first: No muss, fuss, very little in the way of CHRISTMAS’s sentimentality – its a road trip where everything goes wrong and that’s that. The jokes are funny, the characters are enjoyable, it’s got a decent energy and the gags land more often than they don’t. What it’s missing, sadly, is a theme to call its own: The story is the same, as is the “ugliness under the American Road-Trip Mythology” moral, but they aren’t held together by anything that gives meaning to the mayhem. It’ll probably earn its money back, and a few of the setpiece gags will likely have folks talking for months down the road… but there just isn’t weight to any of it – a classic miscalculation in comedies of this type.
The best (or, at least, most VACATION-ish) joke hits right up front: Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) has grown up to be an airline pilot. It’s a perfect gag because it makes sense connected to the rest of the series but also because it sets up his character as a separate entity from Clark. Rusty thrives on the comfort of the routine schedule, and when he learns by chance that the rest of his family (cheifly Christina Applegate as wife Debbie) isn’t anywhere near as enamored of it as he is (particularly yearly summers at a lakeside cabin) it’s a shock to the system; and to rectify things he goes with what worked for his own family once: A road-trip to Wally World.
If the premise has a central stumble, it’s in assuming that it absolutely needed to be a road trip at all – the idea is even more an anachronism than it was in the 80s, and one can easily imagine a whole new crop of jokes could be mined from the nightmare of 21st century air travel (and also Ubers, AirBnB type scenarios, etc). But a road trip it is, and that means we’re mainly watching updates to the broad strokes of the original, with mixed results: The ongoing “weird features” joke involving a foriegn rental car are mostly misses, outside of a gag involving the GPS voice getting stuck in Korean speech (“Why is it so much angrier than the others?”) it’s nowhere near as funny as the simple visual awfulness of the Wagon Queen; but an interlude with Griswold sister Audrey and her new ultra-rich Texan husband (Chris Hemsworth) is pretty amusing as an inversion of the Cousin Eddie sequence from the original, i.e. swapping “wealthy hyper-consuming ultra-conservatives” for “weirdo rednecks” in the “strange rural relatives” role. Funny stuff.

Unfortunately, the lack of theme keeps coming back, meaning that there’s no overall meaning to connect what now feel more than ever like a lot of “and then…” beats stacked in a row. One potentially fun sequence finds Rusty deciding to take a detour to Applegate’s old college, where it’s revealed that her old sorority is/was a party-house and she was a legendarily uninhibited wild-child – great potential for fun with family dynamics, but instead it’s just setup for an extended slapstick bit wherein Applegate attempts a drunken obstacle-course and ends up vomiting everywhere. Funny, sure, but it feels out of place in a way that becomes a repeating problem: The film is trying desperately to get back to the darkness of the original, but can’t quite find the way there in a saleable way and instead settles for “gross.”

Still, gross can be funny – and it’s mostly funny here, especially a repeating bit where the film allows the audience to “get” what’s happening to The Griswolds before they do, the standout being when they find themselves white-water rafting with a guide (Charlie Day) who has a suicidal episode mid-trip. I also imagine the “Griswold Springs” scene would’ve been a winner had they not spoiled it in every single trailer. On the lesser side, a series of gags about awful things happening to cows (obviously attempting to one-up the dog death from the first film) fall weirdly flat.

What’s not a great idea is trying to divide the focus between the individual family members. It likely felt like a good update to give Applegate and the kids more agency whereas the original never really leaves Clark’s perspective, but again: No theme. Their individual issues (Applegate is bored with marriage, the older brother is a sensitive kid bullied by his psychotic younger brother) don’t sync up in any meaningful way, which is unfortunate since if they had a climactic beat involving a brawl with another family at Wally World might’ve had some real energy behind it. Instead, like the rest of the piece, it’s conceptually amusing but lands much too lightly.

That pervasive “not enough” execution is unfortunately encapsulated by an Act 3 cameo by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, which appears to arrive years late having not been informed of its own expiration. I won’t lie – I got a little bit choked up when Clark (sort-of) saves the day by revealing that he’s held onto a specific keepsake from their own Wally World journey (the reveal, complete with mandatory needle-drop, is really something) – but it’s too little, too late.

VACATION is funny – exceptionally so at times, but my memory of it is already fading and I doubt we’ll be thinking about it even two months from now. Whether or not that means the studio has their franchise back will be another story, but for now as comedies go you’re better off seeing SPY or ANT-MAN again.

This review made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.