Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Vacation Retrospective: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Director:  Jeremiah S. Chechik
Starring:  Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Randy Quaid, Johnny Galecki, Juliette Lewis, Doris Roberts
Rated: PG-13

Clark: Hey kids, I heard on the news that an airline pilot spotted Santa's sled on its way in from New york.
Eddie: You serious Clark? 

To kick off the summer this past year, I did a list of my 10 favorite part 3's of all time.  There was a glaring omission on there I was kicking myself that I had forgotten to include.  It's this movie we are here to discuss today.  It probably wasn't on my mind because it wasn't the holiday time of year.  A lot of holiday movies only function into consideration when its the season.  It's A Wonderful Life is one of the greatest films ever made, but ask somebody in March or April to debate "Greatest Films of All Time" and they probably will forget or not even think to bring it up. Its weird how that works.  Yet, movies that have certain other holidays involved like Halloween, Trick R' Treat and Friday the 13th we talk about year round.  Funny how that sort of thing works.
This is the movie that got this whole retrospective turning.  If you've only seen Christmas Vacation one time in your life or never...I guess I'm a little surprised.  I'm not going to act all ignorant and closed-minded telling you this movie is a family tradition for me since it came out back in 1989, because it is a tradition to watch this one for most families around this time of year (the ones that celebrate Christmas or like holiday movies).   I have this film engrained in my brain.  Its one where seeing these same jokes again are always welcome, comforting and still pretty damn funny.  Every year, the day after the Thanksgiving is usually when my family would pull the movie out to watch it.  And then, its usually pulled out again at Christmas Eve sometimes, too.  My Dad isn't one for movies (he goes to them, has ones he wants to see/likes, but really doesn't care all too much past that overall), but there are 2 he loves and watches over and over in his life and its this one and the Harrison Ford version of The Fugitive.  Being the movie fanatic/writer/historian I am, those movies hold a bit more sentimentality to me because its the one instance where my father shares the same kind of love, obsession and enthusiasm for film that I do. 
The third entry in the series is much more true to form of what was successful in the first film and truly carries its spirit as well.  John Hughes is the lone writer on this one and you can see the difference.  While aesthetically the film is wildly different, its tone, progression and character are very much in sync with the first film.  And i'll be frank, this is a comedy series and not some franchise full of artful expression, so when the aesthetic changes its not really "off" its just a product of looking like a film from its era.  The other 2 look closer to 70s films and this one looks more 80s or early 90s.  No harm in any of that, I just thought I'd explain myself for those of you who might not understand or grasp at what I'm reaching for.
The second film thought all the Griswolds needed for their next adventure was purely a vacation with whacksadaisical comedic situations that arise place to place.  It truly forgot about any sense of character or familiarity with the family.  While it works on a merely slapstick and raunchy level, it had forgotten why the comedy worked so much better in the first film.  The first film was about Clark pursuing his right of passage as an adult and father and go on the "perfect" American family trip.  It was all about getting this right and that right.  He wanted everything to go as traditional and old time as could possibly be.  The script then took those modern happenings and turn them on their head for Clark and made a satire of the "Great American Vacation", adding some outrageous situations mixed with some relate-able ones.  
Christmas Vacation works better than just the family taking another trip because 1) we've done that already and 2) its another situation and opportunity for Clark to pursue a right of passage.  He wants to finally be that grown up who holds the big Christmas Day festivities and dinner at his house like the "perfect" and traditional American family would.  This allows Hughes to take another old time situation and satirize it and make it real, putting very relate-able humor about family gatherings and such throughout.  You may not celebrate Christmas.  You may not be white.  You may not be middle class.  But I think there's a strength here in this film's ability to relate despite not being fully in tune in your life with the family on screen.  There's something here in the humor that just parodies that of a family gathering and other members of the family and the difficulties and humor that comes with trying to get everyone together for a big event.  (Destroy me in the comment section if I'm way off here, but I'd like to think it works that way).
We go from an R rating here to a PG-13 and I don't think the film suffers one bit from it.  We might not get an F bomb here and there or the obligatory boobies, but the humor can still be just as crude as its predecessors.  As a matter of fact, Chevy once again gets the top of his game as there are many sequences that he just KILLS in.  Even silly stuff that is obvious, like the department store nervous banter, he makes seem wildly original and enjoyable.  He even is given 2 nemesis in the form of some uppity yuppie neighbors.  Adding Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is ALWAYS a plus.  He's got a great bit where he's got a hockey mask and a chainsaw (I'll always welcome a Friday The 13th reference, thank you very much) and the neighbors asks (about his tree) where he's going to put that, to which he replies "Bend over and I'll show ya".  He says "You've got a lot of nerve talking to me like that Griswold" and Clark responds "I wasn't talking to you" (in reference to the man's wife).
The side characters here are all pretty funny, and you can almost see members of your own family in almost every one of them.  Or you have some sort of shared experience.  Maybe its more just a midwest thing or whatnot.  I dunno.  Like I said, feel free to share your thoughts below and tell me how wrong I am.  There's a sort of dark humor and realism going on with a lot of the dialogue and family member relationships and interaction in the film.  There's a touching moment following Clark's failure with getting the Christmas lights, after his in-laws mock him that his parents come over and encourage him and you can instantly get a sense of love, family and parenting that Clark had as a kid and where his desire for these perfect, traditional family events comes from.  The good sense of character and such from this movie makes it easy to go along with the more outlandish and over the top moments as well.
How could I discuss side characters without discussing the return of Cousin Eddie!  Randy Quaid truly steals this show the minute he arrives.  If there's one thing people love from this movie, its Cousin Eddie and rightfully so.  Quaid sells it like its his normal everyday life (shit, in retrsospect...maybe...).  The man has been quoted all to hell from this movie.  And at ugly Christmas sweater parties there's sure to be at least one person sporting his dickie-fied swagger.  Like I said about this movie either, Eddie feels a natural progression from his character we saw in the very first film.  Also from the first film, this one's ending is very much a retread of the first one's original ending that we know about, this time with Eddie holding hostage Clark's boss.  The film does end in a way that acknowledges this series.  A fresh take an old joke.  Oh, and who the hell doesn't get a big laugh at "Shitter was full"?
For this round of Griswold kids we have likely the most recognizable of the clan.  Johnny Galecki who would go on to some fame in Roseanne and is now a household name with The Big Bang Theory.  Also Juliette Lewis who had a run with some fame in the 90s.  She's kind of simmered down here over the last decade, but do you want to tell me what either of the other previous Audreys have done outside of Vacations?  They've swapped their age and made Rusty the younger one and its not really bothersome.  I like the decision to make Audrey kind of dumb here.  She's given much more comedic things to do than the previous films.  In the past 2 she kind of felt like "Meg" from Family Guy.  I think, while utilized slightly less this time around, these 2 iterations of Rusty and Audrey are kind of more memorable in a sense of them being funny characters this time instead of "just the Griswold kids". 
There may not be any "Holiday Road" this time around to jam to, but that's about the only thing this one doesn't have when transferring the spirit and life of the original into it.  This movie is a laugh out loud hilarious romp that the humor goes beyond the screen.  Say one of Cousin Eddie or Clark's memorable lines to somebody and you're bound to get a laugh or a line back.  You might even find yourself having a full blown discussion of what you like about the movie.  Its pretty layered too, there's a lot of additional stuff you'll begin to notice upon multiple viewings.  Its still got some of the slapstick from European Vacation, but it works well into this story's tone and isn't eye-rolling.  When I wrote the piece for European Vacation, I asked about comedy sequels better than or equal to the original.  I was biting my tongue as I knew damn well this one was a legitimate and worthy candidate of such esteem.  I just didn't want to play my hand yet. Hell, I really don't even think you need to see either of the previous movies to fully enjoy and "get" this movie.  Its fully capable and able to stand by itself.  And that is a real testament to its quality.

NEXT TIME:  No Lampooning, just Vegas

No "Holiday Road" but like the European, it had its own tune too (and a sweet animated sequence for opening credits)

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