You guys are growing up so fast, I hardly recognize you anymore!

-- Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase)

Before the Griswolds head out on yet another vacation, Clark speaks these words to his children, a sly (for this movie, anyway) jab at the fact that the Griswold kids have been played by four different sets of actors in four different films. He might as well have been speaking for the series itself. Watching this movie again for the first time since its theatrical release, I hardly recognize Vegas Vacation as a Vacation film. If European Vacation was a disappointment, Vegas Vacation is a crying shame -- a sad, laughless cash-in devoid of wit, charm, and signs that anyone is doing anything more than grabbing a paycheck. It's the kind of bad that casts a negative light on the good Vacation films that came before. In short, it sucks.

I still remember the day I went to see Vegas Vacation. At this time I had seen the trilogy (particularly the first and third entries) countless times, but Vegas would be the first I saw in a theater. I am not ashamed to say I was excited. Within about five minutes, I was slumped in my seat and was checking my watch. Why do the makers of movie franchises do this? If you've got a beloved property on your hands, why not put a little care into making each installment work? Just a little! It's not like they didn't have time; Vegas Vacation was released eight years after Christmas. Why sign off on such a lazy, unfunny script?

It will come as no surprise to anyone watching the movie that John Hughes stayed far away from this one. He didn't even take a "characters by" credit as far as I can tell. Let's take a moment to take a step back and see how far the series has fallen. The original film was written by Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis. The script here was written by Elisa Bell, "writer" of "comedies" Sleepover and Little Black Book. And it was directed by Stephen Kessler, whom I suppose was hot off a Best Short Film Academy Award nomination he received five years prior in 1992. He's made one movie since Vegas Vacation -- the little-seen independent The Independent. It's not a surprise that Kessler didn't get much work off Vegas. It's terribly directed, with no sense of pacing, timing, or how to construct a joke.

Most of the cast just looks dazed and/or confused at all times. Chase was coming off the 1-2 punch (in the nuts) of Cops and Robbersons and Man of the House. There's a real sadness about him in those films, Vegas, and pretty much everything since. There are certain actors who rise above the crappy material they're given by either ignoring how bad the film is and going all the way anyway (Christopher Walken), or caring so little about the material that it winds up being hilarious in spite of itself (Bill Murray). When Chase doesn't have a good script to work with (pretty much constantly), he doesn't try at all. He barely opens his mouth. To say he "phones in his performances" is being too generous. He mails in his performances. And he doesn't even provide adequate postage.

The other Griswold actors at least seem to realize they're in a movie. Beverly D'Angelo gives it her best, but seems to be saying "Hey! You try acting with Wayne Newton as your scene partner!" Oh. Wayne Newton's in this, too. Believe it or not, he isn't very good. Marisol Nichols is easily the worst Audrey of the series, she brings absolutely nothing to the (admittedly underwritten) role. And another point -- obviously continuity is not a top priority for the series, but how exactly did Chase and D'Angelo produce a Latina daughter?

Ethan Embry is a different story, he's probably the best Rusty since Anthony Michael Hall. His scenes stand out simply because he is enthusiastic and therefore a welcome change of pace. Embry is a highly likable actor, but his talents were much better served by the following year's terrific teen comedy Can't Hardly Wait. And where is Embry now? He's fantastic in a key dramatic role on the Showtime series Brotherhood, which I watched in a marathon this weekend and can't recommend highly enough. Do yourself a favor and check that show out. (Why am I writing about Brotherhood? It's giving me a break from thinking about Vegas Vacation.)

Randy Quaid is back as Cousin Eddie, and that magic is gone too. Eddie just randomly shows up in the same Vegas casino as the Griswolds, by pure coincidence. I know the Vacation movies aren't huge on stark realism, but was there no better way to get the families together? None of Eddie's one-liners have any spark this time out, and some of them don't even make sense. "Where else can you wear shorts 24 hours a day?" he says at one point. Um ... everywhere! To my knowledge, no major U.S. cities have outlawed the wearing of shorts!

Each of the Griswolds goes off on his or her own self-contained story, which is perhaps the largest of the movie's many blunders. What if Christmas Vacation had taken a 20-minute time-out to dive into the relationship between Audrey and her oft-mentioned boyfriend? Would anyone have cared? Of course not, and it would have de-railed the film. You want to see the Griswolds together, reacting to Clark's blind overzealousness. Isn't that what these movies are all about? How did they miss that?

Not one of the four stories are amusing or even compelling. There's Newton courting D'Angelo, Clark losing and trying to win back money, Rusty having a good-luck streak (far and away the best of these sub-plots), and Audrey going off with Eddie's stripper daughter Vicki (Shae D'Lyn) to have the most family-friendly stripper adventures you could imagine. The whole movie is like that, hinting at the black humor utilized so well in previous installments but never really going for it. There's an awful "pearl necklace" joke at one point that seems to say "See! We can be edgy too!" but it feels completely forced and out of place. I don't know which studio executive said "Las Vegas is Sin City, what better place to set a PG-rated family romp?" But that person was incorrect.

Las Vegas has traditionally lent itself to great comedy films. If you want a funny Vegas movie, don't rent this crap, rent Lost in America or Honeymoon in Vegas. Hell, Leaving Las Vegas contains a brutal gang rape and it has more laughs than Vegas Vacation.

Read my previous reviews from this series: National Lampoon's VacationNational Lampoon's European VacationNational Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Most fans of the Vacation series acknowledge Vegas as the worst of the bunch. I certainly always did. But last night, I changed my mind. I watched a little picture called Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure. I'll be reviewing that later in the week. The things I do for this site...