As far as the Vacation movies go, the most recent installment is somehow the most forgettable. 1997’s Vegas Vacation came eight years after the fan-favorite holiday classic Christmas Vacation but managed to burn up a big chunk of the good will and nostalgia that film engendered. Vegas Vacation also opted to eschew the series’ original R rating and skip over Christmas Vacation’s PG-13 tag for a more family friendly PG one. Neither the time spent between films nor the easing off the comedy throttle made for a better film, but rather a lackluster one with the only positive distinction being that it wasn’t as bad as European Vacation. (Now’s as good a time as any to tell you that I won’t be reviewing Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure or Hotel Hell Vacation because I’m not a masochist.)
Let’s once again revisit the differences that separated Vegas Vacation from its forebears. First and foremost, John Hughes had nothing to do with it. I find it a little strange that he didn’t at least get credit for characters, like he does on the current Vacation sequel, but maybe it’s for the best that his name isn’t attached to this one. It’s the lowest grossing of the Vacation films, coming in at just about half of its predecessor’s take with $36.5 million. In fact, the only consistent thread throughout the films is that of Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo playing Clark and Ellen Griswold; even National Lampoon took their name off this one. Instead we’ve got first-time feature director Stephen Kessler at the helm (though he had an Oscar-nominated short film), and TV-movie writer Elisa Bell writing her first feature screenplay, with editor/producer Bob Ducsay getting a co-writing story credit. It’s almost as if Warner Bros. wasn’t even trying with this one…
I should say that now that Rusty and Audrey have grown up quite a bit, we get to enjoy Ethan Embry and Marisol Nichols playing the characters, who have a lot more to do this time around. You see, Clark – who opens this film, not with a nostalgic montage or clever vignette, but rather a case study in how to be a distracted driver – finally got his work bonus and wants to take his kids on one last vacation before they go to college. Being underage, they’re not thrilled when Clark reveals his plans for Vegas, but they soften at the idea when he reveals that his plan is to renew his wedding vows with Ellen. The fact that this trip has a point at all already makes it better than European Vacation, but that’s about all the praise it’ll get from me.
This film flips the notion that, “It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey,” because the Griswolds fly to Vegas ASAP. (Didn’t work out so well in Europe, did it?) Another misstep in this film is that the writers decided it would be cute to wink and nod their way through the picture by referencing the original: the Girl in the Ferrari (Christie Brinkley) is now the Woman in the Ferrari, and she’s a mother; Cousin Eddie shows up quite literally out of nowhere because he became a fan-favorite in earlier films; and Clark even remarks that he doesn’t recognize his own kids because they’re “growing up so fast”, ie they’ve been recast three times now. The only redeeming nod back to the earlier films occurs towards the end of the film when Eddie helps to repay his debts to Clark, who finds himself in dire financial straits.
You see, despite Clark’s best intentions of having a fun family vacation, each of the Griswolds soon succumb to various Las Vegas stereotypes. Clark himself becomes addicted to gambling (because he keeps losing), as does Rusty (because he keeps winning); Ellen becomes smitten with the wealth, fame and fortune of Wayne Newton, and Audrey falls victim to the ways of her wild cousin Vicki (Shae D’lyn). But since this is a PG movie, none of these vices really affect the Griswolds all that much: Rusty’s fake ID gets him in a little hot water with his dad but he certainly enjoys his time in Vegas and wins four cars in the process, Audrey dances for a little bit at Club Areola but is soon spirited away by her father, and Ellen’s dalliance with Newton is part schoolgirl crush, part ploy to make Clark jealous. In fact, it’s Clark’s gambling losses that most negatively affect the family. And it’s those losses that bring us to the best scene in the movie.
The Vacation films are known for their comedian cameos and though this film isn’t all that stocked, there are some notable faces. Mega-producer Jerry Weintraub, who recently passed away, played a mentor of sorts to Rusty, aka Nick Papagiorgio; Wallace Shawn of The Princess Bride fame played Marty the Blackjack dealer, who gave Clark fits; numerous SNL cast members pop up along with character/voice actor Toby Huss; but the best cameo has to go to the venerable Sid Caesar. When the Griswolds plan to put all their money into one last big gamble on a game of Keno, they make the fortuitous acquaintance of elder Mr. Ellis (Caesar), welcoming him as part of their family for the evening. When the Griswolds invariably lose the Keno round, they’re amazed to see that Mr. Ellis has won the big prize. (“I won the money!”) It obviously comes as a shock to Mr. Ellis as well, since he soon dies (comedically, however) of a heart attack. With his dying words, he gifts Clark the winning ticket, thus saving the Griswolds from their own stupidity.
If you want to approach this film with a cynical eye, you can say that it asserts the claim that life has a way of rewarding idiocy, arrogance, and incompetence through sheer dumb luck, and that hard-working people with good moral fiber don’t even exist in this world. Or you can view it as another attempt at capitalizing on the series’ success, one that toned down the more adult humor in favor of a broader audience, but missed the point of Vacation and Christmas Vacation that made those films instant classics. Vegas Vacation is a silly little film that doesn’t do any harm, but unfortunately didn’t stay in Vegas.
- VACATION Retrospective: The Mother Truckster of All Family Road Trip Movies
- EUROPEAN VACATION Retrospective: This Movie Is Why Europeans Hate Americans
- CHRISTMAS VACATION Retrospective: This Is a Perfect Movie