Thursday, December 5, 2013

Vacation Retrospective: National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

National Lampoon's Vacation
Director: Harold Ramis
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Dana Barron, Miriam Flynn, John Candy, Christie Brinkley, Jane Krakowski, Eugene Levy
Rated: R

When I was a boy, just about every summer we'd take a vacation.  And you know, in 18 years, we never had fun.
                                                     ~Clark Griswold

When Jack Ryan got pushed, this one just kind of made sense.  Not only does it include one of the best and most popular Christmas movies of all time, this first entry in the series turned 30 this year.  Things just lined up.  This is also Naptown Nerd's first foray into the straight comedy genre with a retrospective series.  We did do Beverly Hills Cop back in the summer, but that is more of an action/police drama/comedy hybrid.  For me, I'm familiar with the 1st and 3rd entry in this series and we'll discuss that further when covering them.  The 2nd and 4th movies I have only seen once a piece, so its going to be interesting to revisit 2 movies my memory isn't really remember but a few details.  And then there's something I'm assuming is going to be a giant turd to finish us out that I have never seen and avoided til now.  So, lets move on down the "Holiday Road" with the Griswold family, shall we?
In our maiden voyage, we follow the Griswold family on their road trip cross country from Illinois to California in hopes of going to Walley World.  On the way, of course, are a few stops.  We start from the acquisition of the car and the preparation the night before.  One man's desire to spend more time with his family turns into a very comedic nightmare trip from hell.  This classic journey is one of the great all time road trip movies there is.  If you're a fan of Chevy Chase, as I am, this movie is definitely full of his wonderful quips and snark that we've come to enjoy over the years.  But, if you're a fan, then you've definitely seen this movie more than once.  
This is the film that also got John Hughes his big start.  He based the screenplay off of a short he wrote for National Lampoon's magazine called "Vacation '58".  They then optioned to put it into a movie.  Originally the film was to have the focus be the teenage children of Clark and Ellen, but once Harold Ramis and Chevy Chase were attached, the focus then became Clark.  Christie Brinkley's character was even a teenager and supposed to be a interest of Rusty and even that was changed to be Clark's.
While this movie is held high up, there are a few moments that definitely feel a bit awkward when watching it now (and maybe back then?).  There's a scene early on when Clark takes the wrong exit and winds up in a ghetto in St. Louis.  A an "extremely dangerous" ghetto with nothing but black people.  I suppose I can see this being humorous to white people of the 80s...maybe not, but today, its an very ugly moment in the film that is supposed to be played for laughs.  It wasn't the first film to of the era to attempt this kind of story turn, by far.  If you take a look back at the 80s, you'll find many films that try to evoke fear or laughs by a white person getting lost in the wrong "poor black neighborhood"
The other objectionable thing is Clark's desire to achieve some infidelity that leads to his constant pursuit of Christie Brinkley's (what a smokeshow) nameless woman driving a Ferrari.  This all lends itself to a scene where he goes skinny dipping with her in the motel pool, but before anything can happen he realizes the water is freezing and awakens the whole motel, being caught by his whole family.  Showing him extremely nervous about the whole deal doesn't make it any better.  And to boot it forces Ellen to have to feel like she's not doing something right and have to overplease her husband when she's been nothing but submissive and on board with his constant overdone sexual advances the entire trip.  Maybe its how I look at it now as an adult or just that my views have progressed over time, but we're supposed to then follow and root for Clark following this exploit.  Yes, there's a lot of dumb and bad stuff Clark does over the course of the film, but this is the only one that is severely detrimental to what is most important to him and to us the audience.  This same type of schtick would be done in a later movie, but handled much more carefully and done in better taste to where it actually does work.
Those are my two gripes with an otherwise hilarious movie.  While there's many stops on the trip, you can't go without mentioning stopping at Cousin Eddie's.  Randy Quaid is a scene stealer and his white trash family.  Quaid commits and you really buy who this guy is.  When he returns in a later film it would almost cement him as the fan favorite character for the entire series.  In this entry we see his house and meet his kids (including the film debut of Jane Krakowski).  They leave us with Aunt Edna, who is just an old complaining louse, and her uncontrollable dog.  Edna ends up passing away during the trip and in some hilarity is tied up to the top of the car and gets left on Ellen's cousin's doorstep because he wasn't home at the time.  However, due to cuts in the film, this is what happened.  Originally, there was supposed to be an insert while they were driving of her fingers moving signifying she was still alive.  The MPAA apparently felt this was too cruel.  Apparently having her dead and just dropped somewhere is better in the eyes of the MPAA.
Speaking of deleted scenes, the original ending (which is evidently lost) was scrapped.  Instead of entering Walley World and forcing John Candy to take them on rides, Clark and Co went to the house of Roy Walley and forced him and his employees to dance and sing the Walley song.  And then the police show up to arrest them.  But...alas!  A twist!  Christie Brinkley rolls up, the daughter of Roy Walley and convinces him to let Clark go.  Payoff!  In the end, the Griswolds fly home, only to find out they are on the wrong flight.  Clark then loses it and hijacks the plane.  This all didn't work well with test audiences, so they went out and shot the ending we have.  As a benefit we get another SCTV (Canada's SNL) alum in John Candy appearing.  I think this ending is a bit more satisfying (although I'd love to see the cut one for fan's sake) as we get to see the theme park in action, since we have waited the whole movie to see it.  Tiny Tunes Adventures did something like this back in the day in a movie where you get all hyped up at this theme park only to have the family go through it via the tram and go home.  Such a let down.  This one has that letdown when they arrive, but at least its short lived and we enter the park.
Despite those two beefs I had, I still think Vacation is kind of one of those "right of passage" movies that need to be first on deck for a film fan when they come of an age that their parents allow them to watch rated R movies.  Its one of those ultimate road trip movies and it displays Chevy Chase at the top of his game.  This movie was a big hit and the characters so enjoyable that its no surprise we went on more adventures with them.  And that poster.  Its a parody of the original Star Wars poster, but its ridiculousness is awesome in its own right.  They used to show this movie on Fox quite a big when I was growing up and I'd always make sure I caught it.  I truly believe while this movie is 30 years old, most of the humor is genuinely timeless and can still work for young people today as its strength lies in the well written familiarity with its characters.  There's an easy in with this movie be you young or old.

Next Time:  All I remember is some topless women dancing on a bar and my dad telling me I needed to turn my head.

For now...go ahead and get this stuck in your head!

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