' Cinema Romantico: Notes on Watching Summer Rental Post-Vacation

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Notes on Watching Summer Rental Post-Vacation

The demarcation line in “Summer Rental” (1985) is a scene between Jack Chester (John Candy), an air traffic controller forced into an unsuccessful vacation, and Scully (Rip Torn), piratical proprietor of a mostly unpopulated restaurant/bar situated on a rundown schooner. “Do you know what it’s like to peak when you’re  eighteen?” Jack demands. At this point, Scully, a character who comes across so much like Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa, it’s difficult to tell whether or not it’s all a gigantic put-on, assumes an entirely earnest expression, suggesting that inside this caricature lurks something very real. “Yes,” Scully says, “I do.” And the solemnity in his voice makes you believe him. And so a movie that has, up until this point, been primarily spirited second-rate slapstick metamorphoses into the sweet at-sea comeback of a middle-aged man finding his sea legs and giving the family he clearly loves a reason to buck up and feel proud.


I used to identify so much more with the first half of “Summer Rental.” I was raised, as I've said so many times before, on “Star Wars”, Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland adventures and John Candy comedies. “Summer Rental” was a cherished favorite of my mom, my sister and I. We rented it on VHS multiple times and never failed to chortle at the sight of a hapless Jack Chester cracking eggs on the dashboard of his car or the sight of him shooing away a nosy kid that’s not his with a fly swatter.

But then at that age I had no comprehension of what vacation meant. I enjoyed family vacations, don’t get me wrong, but as a worn-out, embattled parent might say, “What do you have to get away from?” Catching lightning bugs in jars? Staying up late to watch this strange David Letterman show on NBC? Listening to Q-102’s nightly Top 10 countdown? This endless assortment of gags in the film's first forty-five minutes were comical to my youthful mind but I missed what they were intended to represent for people of, shall we say, a more advanced age.

The initial passages in “Summer Rental” revolve directly around becoming burned out. Air traffic controller is a job ripe for burn out, but his profession could well have been anything. The point is, life’s worn Jack down to the nub. And so the film, smartly taking only a trifle of time to get going, packs up he and his family of four and sends them on a getaway to Citrus Cove, Florida. Of course, even there Jack can’t re-find his center. Jack gets sunburned. Jack breaks his leg. It’s supposed to be humorous but through the prism of age it’s actually terrifying, a blessed sabbatical revealing itself to be cursed.


No doubt director Carl Reiner did not mean for “Summer Rental” to play as class satire, yet notes of just such a film emerge anyway. Jack eventually acquires a nemesis in the form of local sailor Al Pellet (Richard Crenna) whose omnipresent Captain’s hat, fancy yacht and reserved table at a hot-to-trot lobster restaurant that doesn’t take reservations transforms him into a snooty emblem of the rich & semi-famous. Jack, on other hand, symbolizes the fatigued working, forced to re-locate, courtesy of a comical mix-up, from a nice place on Beach Lane to the proper shanty on Beach Road with his whole family looking on. And when it turns out Pellet owns the shanty and threatens to jettison the Chester clan, Jack’s kids run off in disappointment, leaving their father genuinely hurt, a man trying to do his best who just can’t get it right.

That’s what makes the final forty minutes not so much funny as genuinely cathartic, as Jack challenges Pellet in the local regatta, and scrimps and scrawls with his wife and kids in tow, everyone pitching in and having fun, re-lighting a flame. It’s something so much more moving than any “Vacation” movie. They win the regatta, sure, they have to, and good for them, but Jack’s already made peace for the finish line and his family’s already come around to have a good time.


“The film,” Janet Maslin wrote in her original review for The New York Times, “doesn’t even have an ending; after the regatta is won, it simply stops.” She meant this as a criticism; I strenuously disagree. What’s the worst part of vacation? Why the post-vacation letdown, of course, and that letdown usually starts happening while the vacation remains in progress but its finish line has appeared on the horizon. “Summer Rental” concludes at the pinnacle, in the midst of the emotional retreat’s finest hour, that transcendent place we all wish we could stay forever and can’t which is why it’s so wonderful that the movie does.

I re-watched “Summer Rental” this past July after I'd returned home from a quick vacation aboard a seemingly un-air conditioned bus after seeing my beloved Jenny Lewis and the as-ever amazing Wilco at the 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines. And so sitting, sweaty and sad, on my couch, I flashed back to the previous evening, standing beneath a peerless pink-ribboned summer sky in my hometown with my beautiful girlfriend and my awesome sister, listening to Ms. Lewis tear through my favorite song from 2014. Standing there, I realized that as much I as I wanted to stay in the moment forever, I couldn't, and so I held onto it, fiercely, until it was gone.

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