12 Films of Christmas #4: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how Home Alone director Chris Columbus was booted off of another Christmas flick due to conflicts with the star and that landing on Home Alone was a pretty good Christmas rebound. Unfortunately, the film he was dismissed from was one of the few this blog thinks is a superior Christmas movie:  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Now to be fair, it’s said that Columbus left this film due to disagreements with lead actor Chevy Chase. We all know that’s lingo for fired, basically, as the studio wasn’t going to side with a director of his stature over Clark W. Griswold. Even if, rumor has it, that Chase was a pain in the ass to work with going back to his days on Saturday Night Live.

Chase is very much the star here as most of the scenes revolve around him. When he’s not around the house, we very rarely get a look at what the rest of the Griswold family is up to. Essentially, we experience virtually everything through Clark, which isn’t unlike the previous Vacation films that came before it. It’s one reason why producer and writer John Hughes didn’t have any interest in directing the film as he viewed it as an outlet for Chase and little else.

Which is kind of a shame because, whatever your thoughts on Chevy Chase happen to be, the film works because Chase is so convincing as Clark Griswold. Unlike the previous Vacation movies, this one keeps the Griswolds at home as Clark is hell-bent on having the perfect family Christmas. He invites his parents and in-laws to stay on holiday at their home and carefully orchestrates everything from the tree to the decorations and probably even the menu. Of course, this being a Vacation film, nothing goes the way Clark plans. He forgets a saw when they set out for a tree, he can’t get his elaborate lights display to work properly, he spends a day locked in the attic, his cousin-in-law Eddie shows up, and worst of all, he doesn’t get a Christmas bonus thanks to his cheap boss, Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle Murray).

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Clark and Ellen are back for this third installment in the Vacation series.

Everything that goes wrong for Clark does so for a reason; to make the audience laugh. Some of the gags are painfully awkward, like when Clark gets caught flirting with a lingerie clerk by son Rusty (Johnny Galecki) or when engaging in a dangerous game of road rage in the opening scene. Others are spectacles of physical comedy with Clark taking a pretty good beating at times by falling off the roof or crashing his sleigh into Wal-Mart. Most of the gags hit home, and the film does a good job of raising the laugh factor as the film goes on. The best is definitely reserved for Christmas Eve, when basically everything blows up in Clark’s face. Some of the bits are a little less interesting, like the sledding sequence which feels like a time filler, or Clark’s day-dreaming of a swimming pool.

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The film opens with a pretty neat little animation of Santa having a hard time making a delivery to the Griswold family.

As was the case with the first film, Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) is a scene stealer as Clark’s hick cousin-in-law. Eddie has little comprehension of how he’s perceived by others and is devoid of shame. He has no problem emptying his chemical toilet in the middle of the street while swigging a beer in his bathrobe. He’s also pretty selfish, though not maliciously so, which makes him hard to resent. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why Clark wants nothing to do with him even if he is well-meaning, as he is at the film’s climax.

And that climax really is a work of Christmas comedy gold. Everyone has Christmas horror stories, but hopefully not like this. And when Clark finds out he’s been enrolled in the Jelly of the Month Club (“It’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year ’round”) and goes on his rant he creates one of the most quotable moments of any Christmas film. It’s almost a shame that there’s some filler between that scene and Eddie’s “gift” as the momentum the film built up to that point is stellar. The film ends some-what abruptly, but I suppose that’s a good thing as we don’t need to see the family open burnt presents and try to pick up the pieces following the trashing of the house on Christmas Eve.

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“Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!”

There’s a lot of fine role-players in this film. Both Rusty and wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) play the patient, straight-role to Chase while daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis) is more combative with her father, but not in an over-the-top sense that steals any scenes or derails the film. Doris Roberts and E.G. Marshall are excellent as Ellen’s parents who always point out what Clark gets wrong and not what he gets right. Nicholas Guest and Julia-Louise Dreyfus are scene-stealers as Clark’s neighbors, who put up with his crap for most of the film until the damn runneth over. They’re portrayed as snotty yuppy types and we’re supposed to root against them, even though they never do anything wrong or even mean. In that, the film is sort of mean-spirited in how it treats them, but I laugh at their misfortune anyways.

Christmas Vacation is, simply put, the perfect Christmas comedy. It spreads the laughs around throughout the brisk 97 minute runtime and does a good job of relying on each supporting actor in equal measures, while putting a rather large load onto the shoulders of Chevy Chase. And at this point, Chase has the Clark Griswold character nailed and it’s hard to separate the actor from the character as a result. This one is definitely worthy of annual viewing, just make sure to catch it on a premium network or home media format as the edited one that airs on Freeform is a disaster.

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