In Praise of Christina Applegate, The Best Thing in the New ‘Vacation’

Is there a more consistently devalued cinematic comedy asset than Christina Applegate? She was the overlooked MVP of the Anchorman movies and the secret weapon of Married with Children; in middling big-screen comedies from The Sweetest Thing to Hall Pass to Going the Distance, she gives even the dopiest scenarios a frisky energy and a shot of comic adrenaline. And she’s the best thing in the new Vacation, turning a typical thankless wife role into a scene-stealer with every bemused reaction and sprung line reading.

Applegate plays Debbie Griswold — wife of Rusty, played as a youngster by four different actors in the original Vacation series and now, as an adult, by Ed Helms. (The role’s scattered history is winkingly acknowledged in a scene where Rusty looks through old family photos and glimpses the otherwise unexplained disparity.) Much like his old man, Rusty is a stepped-on and pushed-over Everyman whose top priority is quality time with the family, a goal he decides to attain by replicating the road trip to Wally World of his youth (and, of course, of 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation).

Christina Applegate and Ed Helms in "Vacation"

Wacky hijinks ensue, some of them very funny, some dipping desperately into bad taste, some just falling flat. (Which, it’s worth remembering, was the case with even the best films of this franchise.) The film’s weakness for stale nostalgia is its biggest flaw; we hear “Holiday Road” four times, by my count — the original gets two spins, in addition to two more cover versions — a tribute to the Christie Brinkley thread comes to a grisly end that left our preview audience dumbfounded, and Chevy Chase’s brief appearance feels like the shrugging obligation that it is (as Life With Lucy taught us, there’s nothing sadder than a retiree doing slapstick).

But when writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) go their own way, they come up with some reasonably funny stuff: an inspired sequence at the Texas home of sister Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her buff conservative cowboy weatherman husband (Chris Hemsworth, who gets it), a funny bit with a corny guide (Charlie Day) that takes a dark turn, the payoff of their Duel-style pursuit by a menacing truck driver.

And in one welcome return to the original film, it’s a hard, well-earned R-rated comedy (every subsequent installment was PG-13 or PG). That particular edge, in matters of subject matter and profanity, does make the unfortunate touchy-feely pathos (sappy music in the middle of Rusty’s inevitable breakdown, even) seem all the more tonally incongruent, and that goes double for the serious, State of the Marriage subplot that we’re somehow supposed to take seriously late in the picture.

Ed Helms and Christina Applegate in "Vacation"

But that beat is saved, as much of the picture is, by Applegate. She gets precious little to do, comically speaking — though she is the focus of one big set piece, a visit to her old college sorority where Rusty and the kids discover that her nickname, and collegiate ethos, was “Debbie Do Anything.” (“Do anything?” one of the kids asks. “Go play,” she sternly responds.) She ends up participating in the sorority’s “chug run” fundraiser, one she created and discovers, to put it mildly, she can no longer pull off. It’s a go-for-broke bit of spewing slapstick that Applegate executes with precision and ingenuity, selling a bit that would sink most actors.

But she performs little miracles like that all over the movie: her grim expression when meticulously “like”-ing all of a friend’s Instagram photos, her head-shake and “no” and “really” responses to Rusty’s frequent fumbles, her wine-fueled giggles when chatting with Hemsworth, the way her eyes glaze over when tallying up her total college conquests for a curious Rusty. (As with her portrayal of Kelly Bundy, while the script may flirt with slut-shaming, Applegate’s matter-of-fact approach to her sexuality keeps that element at bay.) By the end of the movie, you find yourself watching her in scenes where she’s simply reacting, just because she’s always so present, and often more interesting than the scene’s ostensible focus.

Yet at the end of the day, it’s another second fiddle role, The Wife, just as Applegate played The Wife in Hall Pass and Going the Distance and Surviving Christmas, and The Girl in Anchorman and The Big Hit and Just Visiting, and The Best Friend in The Sweetest Thing and A View from the Top. Applegate always delivers in those roles, but each one leaves you wanting more of her, and wondering what she could do if somebody finally made her the central character in a movie, rather than the faithful sidekick. And considering that Vacation similarly wastes not only the terrific Leslie Mann but, in a cameo role, It’s Always Sunny’s Kaitlin Olson, this is clearly not just Applegate’s issue.

Vacation is out Friday.