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In That Darn Cat, perky, pursed-lipped, disapproving mom Mrs. Randall (Bess Armstrong) is obsessed by the odd fantasy that her sulky teenage daughter, Patti (Christina Ricci), has one mission in life: to make her mother say a swear word. No wonder Patti wants to split Dullsville (Edgefield, S.C., masquerading as Edgefield, Mass.) for the big city, which she considers Boston to be. “Ah-ah-ah,” taunts Mom, waving a pink-tipped index finger. “You’re not gonna make me swear.” It’s enough to drive a sulky 14-year-old to snipe off the local water tower.

In the process of courting a local fluffy beauty, Patti’s darn cat, D.C. (Elvis), stumbles into a kidnapper’s den, whence he returns bearing a clue. Patti contacts the FBI, and they palm her off on goofy young black agent Kelso (Doug E. Doug) as a measure of their respect for him. The two spend a couple of evenings trying to track the cat back to the criminals’ lair, but the movie grows bored with itself and invention chugs to a halt. A mind-numbingly improbable and momentumless car chase occupies the last 20 minutes of this 89-minute viewing experience. The best part of the movie—an escalating rivalry between the owners of two gas stations—is literally blown sky-high.

In the meantime, a number of questions arises: Why does Mrs. Randall wear cat ears on her head for the big local cat show? Is she insane? Why don’t the kidnappers realize that they haven’t got rich trophy wife Mrs. Flint (Dyan Cannon) but the Flints’ maid? Why don’t they hear the news that Mr. Flint (Dean Jones, in a tip of the hat to the Disney live-action films of the ’60s) has confessed to having lost all his money and can’t pay the ransom? Why doesn’t Agent Kelso ask the townspeople any questions? Why does a chamber music ensemble in the town bandstand appear to be playing “Deutschland Uber Alles”? And if Patti hates the small-minded conformity and secret hypocrisies of her tedious hometown, why does her big breakthrough come when the snotty blondes who titter at her in class invite her to one of their snotty blonde parties?

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I believe that grown-ups have a responsibility to kids, not the least of which is to entertain them. Children have prodigious imaginations; they haven’t reached the parameters of what’s possible yet, so their minds just keep going. The product Hollywood turns out in their name—shoddy, inconsistent, would-be zaniness usually set to a funky fresh soundtrack—is so creatively meager it can do nothing more than, at best, temporarily hypnotize them. (The kids in the audience at my screening fidgeted, chatted, and largely ignored the screen.) If everything doesn’t add up and there’s nothing charming, magical, fun, or even likely, well, so what? They’re only kids.

Vegas Vacation is an extended advertisement for the “new” Las Vegas, mecca of wholesome family fun. When the usual suspects, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase, paunchier and paunchier), his wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), and their kids, spread out for a little bonus-spending action, each manages to cash in on his or her own version of the high-rolling dream, between gaga sightseeing and a couple of stage shows, of course.

Son Rusty (Ethan Embry—why don’t their kids ever age? At least each script has the grace to make a joke about it) finds he has the Midas touch, winning cars right and left for the price of a quarter and making a fortune for the gangsters lucky enough to have gathered around his craps table. Soon, mobsters and showgirls are clogging the Jacuzzi in his complimentary penthouse suite. Daughter Audrey (Marisol Nichols) has taken up with her trashy cousin Vickie (Shae D’Lyn), a cunning-eyed little minx whose idea of success is to “dance” at one of the city’s gentlemen’s clubs.

As is usual in family stories set in Las Vegas, the wife and mom is given a fevered lust for Wayne Newton—his purported attractiveness to women like the luscious D’Angelo is one of Hollywood’s pet myths. But Vegas Vacation extrapolates this flattering nonsense to its logical and ridiculous end—Newton falls just as hard for Mrs. Griswold, ignoring his own moral compass to woo her in splashy Vegas style. Joining him for a lunch date at his ranch outside the city, Ellen is asked by someone off camera not to move. The camera pulls back to show a painter in the corner of the room, daubing a double portrait of Newton and Ellen as a centaur and his sequined-gowned nymph.

Clark, meanwhile, has gambling fever, but the script doesn’t know how to make losing money interesting except to give Clark a nemesis in the form of a blackjack dealer (enough with the Wallace Shawn, already) whose attitude is inscrutable. When he loses his money and finds his family pulled apart by the tawdry lures of Las Vegas, Clark goes on a mission to get them back, and maybe even recoup his savings. But they all seem to be having a fine time; the solution is as trumped-up as the problem.

The script takes a few swipes at the town in between cobbling together a tourist brochure: Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) lives on government property so cheap he hardly notices the lingering effects of nuclear testing in the area. And a scene on one of the city’s infamous all-you-can-eat buffets does perfect justice to this repulsive loss leader. But mostly Vegas Vacation stints on common sense and flatters its hosts—given loads of opportunities to lampoon the city’s excesses, this movie can’t think of anything funny to do with Siegfried and Roy except sit in reverently on a good chunk of their act.CP