Saturday, December 7, 2013

Vacation Retrospective: National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985)

National Lampoon's European Vacation
Director: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Jason Lively, Dana Hill, Eric Idle
Rated: R

Clark:  I'll have a Coke.
Stewardess:  Do you want that in the can?
Clark:  No, I'll have it right here.

Comedy sequels are a challenge in the realm of movie franchises.  Of all genres, its probably the one that proves most difficult to live up to the original.  There are instances where it has been done with much success, but its very few and far between.  Quick, tell me a comedy sequel you think is far superior to the original entry?  Now find me where its clearly the winner in the argument.  Comedy sequels usually have the daunting task of retreading the same jokes and structure that popped up the last time or really rolling the dice and going for something new.  Plus, when making a comedy, you're not sure of new stuff what is going to stick and what's not.  Its one thing to laugh when you're writing or shooting the movie, but its another when you actually turn to audiences to see what is working with them.  Most of the time, they just recycle old jokes and it seems to please.
European Vacation is a movie that desperately wants to be more of the same from the original but seems to either have forgotten or be missing what made the original film work so well.  While John Hughes is credited as being back in the writer's chair, there is another writer credited and I'm wonder how extensive Hughes involvement actually was.  When it comes to the family themselves, the Griswalds (now with an "A") are a mere characature of themselves, barely representing the comical but grounded and relate-able family from the first film.  The film basically pronounces "here they are" and just expects you to be on board from there.  Instead of playing with clever dialogue with humor and payoffs related to character development, we are just thrust into random scenarios and having the Griswalds face an over the top slapstick situation to lead them to another random scene.
In the first film, we had a scene in the opening where Clark had mapped out and planned the vacation.  This movie serves as the total opposite of that.  It is just a series of slapstick "fish out of water" situations pasted together to try and form a narrative.  There's also no travel involved, which seemed to be part of the joy in the first one.  Also, most of the story and comedy happens out of convenience.  The Griswalds just arrive somewhere, something silly happens and we're onto the next location.  Since the first was pure American movie about traveling the nation, it was easy to relate to the story and feel familiar with it.  Here, they go to an unfamiliar Europe and seem to bring no sense of relation to the audience other than "dumb Americans".  And while the first film had some moments and story points that stretch accountability, I think based on character development and plausibility led up to the point you're able to go with it.  This one takes can wildly stretch it and jump on to story points that just don't seem believable and feel much too overboard to be enjoyable.
This film does begin the trend of having a new Rusty and Audrey every movie.  Anthony Michael Hall chose to do Weird Science instead of coming back, so they decided that both children needed recast.  Jason Lively proves his equal in the looks department but is lacking in the acting area.  However, he gets a big pass from me for being the star of Night of the Creeps!  Audrey is very much a departure from the first film.  The character is almost a complete reimagining.  Some of it is pretty funny, but a lot of her schtick grows tiresome as the film wears on.  Another addition tot he cast is Eric Idle as a biker.  He brings some Monty Python call backs and is his usual fun self every time he pops up on screen.
I can't imagine how this film would have turned out had Chevy Chase not been in it.  The man actually kind of carries much of this film on his shoulders.  Some really dumb moments are salvaged thanks to his contribution on screen to the comedy.  Not all of it works all the time, but his comedic sensibilities and timing elevate some really subpar material into some good moments.  And somewhere in the 2 years between this and the first Beverly D'Angelo got much much hotter.  Maybe a better haircut?  There relationship might be the only thing that hints of what once was in the first movie.  I think its to the strength of the two performers in fully realizing their characters that they kept the Ellen and Sparky more like the Griswolds and less like the Griswalds.
European Vacation is a weird anomaly.  It actually really tries to be and wants to go down the road of being straight retread of the original and just changing the setting.  It oddly becomes something that's almost unrecognizable from the first film and truly becomes its own beast.  From the opening of notes of "Holiday Road" they try and trick your emotions into this being more of the same, but quickly you'll see its gone quite bonkers and off the rails.  The game show sequel basically loudly announces that something is very different here.  Then there's a really wild and strange musical number with Ellen coming out of the shower in a towel.  While maybe it is a retread, its a very hollow, cartoon version of its predecessor that just doesn't understand or have a handle on what made the first movie work.  Maybe its a fault of the director's sensibilities as she later did the Look Who's Talking movies and a film that I really like that also is populated by "living cartoon" type characters, Clueless.
I did laugh quite a few times at the movie.  But, most of them were just random snickers.  When jokes are being thrown out you by the hundreds constantly, you're going to find something to laugh at.  Maybe taken on its own or far separated from the first movie this plays out a lot better, but this is clearly an inferior sequel and a pretty weak film.  It heavily crutches itself on a ton of slapstick comedy that is something the first film was never about.  You honestly could change the title and names of the characters in this movie and you wouldn't even be able to tell that this was a sequel to the first film.  They really feel of two different universes.  I will give Cullen that "Rusty: The European Tour" was a pretty great highlight (even funnier years removed from the era).  I didn't hate watching this, but its not something I can recommend to anybody and its a pretty weak movie.  Like an indie film that isn't very good, here's nothing worse than a comedy you're not on board with.

Next Time:  We put the 'O' back in Griswold as they stay home this time!

Now...enjoy the SUPER 80s closing credits and jamming song from European Vacation

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