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Review: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Directed by: Jeremiah Chechik

Premise: The Griswold family hosts Christmas. They prepare their home for visitation by extended relatives while Clark (Chevy Chase) anticipates his annual Christmas bonus.

What Works: The National Lampoon’s Vacation movies are uneven with two installments that are very good and the rest varying between mediocre and wretched. While the original Vacation film has an anarchic edge that none of the other installments quite match, Christmas Vacation is a holiday classic. The common denominator between Vacation and Christmas Vacation is John Hughes who adapted the screenplays from short stories he had published in National Lampoon magazine. In both of his Vacation scripts, Hughes drew upon stories set in post-war America but then transplanted them into the 1980s. That’s part of what works about these films and made them a little bit subversive. Clark Griswold is a white male father figure out of Leave it to Beaver who is trying and failing to create a Norman Rockwell-like family moment. His failure creates the comedy but part of the reason that Christmas Vacation has become so beloved is that Clark’s failures are so recognizable. The movie exists somewhere between middle class suburban reality and Hollywood; it has scenarios and images that recall classic holiday films like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas but it also has the touches of contemporary life like family dysfunction and financial woes. That furthers the subversive quality of the movie but it also makes the film recognizable to many people’s experiences. Hughes smartly picked up on the frustrations of the holiday season like the arduousness of putting up holiday lights and the tensions between extended family members. Among all the goofy humor, there are also a handful of genuine dramatic moments in this movie that fit seamlessly into the rest of the picture instead of seeming like a mawkish aside. The combination of madcap comedy with earnestness and a tangible sense of 1980s suburban life is at the heart of what has made Christmas Vacation such an enduring classic. But the film has its other virtues, namely that it is very funny. Virtually every scene has a gag or verbal joke that lands and this is one of the most quotable comedies ever made. Christmas Vacation also builds very well, both within scenes and across the picture, and it is a terrific example of filmmakers setting up and executing the jokes. The film also benefits from a great supporting cast, most notably Cousin Eddie played by Randy Quaid. The timing between Chase and Quaid is terrific and their exchanges have some classic comic moments.

What Doesn’t: The Vacation series centers on Clark, played by Chevy Chase. That makes sense insofar as Chase was the only actor in these films with marquee value and Christmas Vacation is primarily his story. But the film pushes the rest of his immediate family into the background. The children, played by Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki, don’t do much nor do they have any of the wacky characterization that’s given to the Griswold’s extended family. Ellen, played by Beverly D’Angelo, is mostly just the doting housewife and she rarely participates in the action. D’Angelo, Lewis, and Galecki are fine and do what the script requires of them but Christmas Vacation misses the opportunity to do a bit more with the Griswolds as a family. Another trait of the Vacation films is that the story is really a framework for the comedic set pieces. That becomes apparent in a few scenes that don’t follow logically from one to the next. Some of the plotting is random. That’s apparent whenever Christmas Vacation ventures outside of the Griswold household, especially the sequences of Clark at work. But these moments are brief and payoff in the end in a way that gives the movie a narrative shape.

DVD extras: The blu-ray edition includes a commentary track and a trailer.

Bottom Line: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a comedy classic and one of the best movies of its kind. The film is consistently funny in a way that few movies ever achieve and it has a cast of memorable characters. But Christmas Vacation also taps into something real about the suburban holiday experience that continues to play for the audience.

Episode: #627 (December 25, 2016)