A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 295 – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

How this movie became a Christmas staple in my family’s home, I’m not entirely sure. We must have caught it on television one year and left it on despite normally turning away from something so crude and slapstick. My mother’s favorites are things like last night’s Comfort and Joy and a version of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. We watch The Box of Delights and A Christmas Carol. Put up against all of those, this is certainly the one thing that’s not like the others. It is in your face Christmas mayhem and it revels in it.

Really, this movie is a series of mishaps that segue into disaster in the days leading up to Christmas. The plot is pretty simple: Clark Griswold wants to give his whole family the perfect family Christmas but Clark Griswold is sort of cursed to have his best intentions lead straight to hell. Clark’s a familiar face if you’ve seen the other Griswold family vacation movies. Chevy Chase plays him with mostly affable comic klutziness until he snaps when everything comes to a head. And even when he snaps he’s still somewhat affable. It’s an amazing thing, being able to portray affability in a character with a chainsaw and a manic grin.

It all starts out relatively tame, with an oversized Christmas tree and an abundance of sap. Clark gets accidentally locked in the attic. When both sets of grandparents show up his daughter and son have to share a bed. Putting lights on the house becomes a mammoth effort. And then Cousin Eddie and his family show up in their disgusting RV. Things spiral out of control while Clark tensely waits to get his Christmas bonus from work, counting on it to help pay for the pool he’s already put a down payment on. By the time Christmas arrives things are bad, but not disastrous. The disasters start with an exploding turkey, a cat chewing on tree light cords and a burning Christmas tree. Clark snaps and gives a few fantastic rants that whip through my head every so often (especially the line “Hallelujah! Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?”) and through it all his family try their best not to make things worse. Except for Cousin Eddie. He makes things worse just by being there.

It is a thoroughly ridiculous movie. Every scene is a gag based on one more horrible thing happening at Christmas. It’s full of caricatures like Eddie and the yuppie neighbors, Todd and Margo. It is every nightmarish family Christmas rolled into one and helmed by a guy who just wants perfection, is that too much to ask? And you know from the outset that it is indeed too much to ask. His whole family knows. His son gamely goes along with some of his antics but bows out when it goes over the top. His daughter is fed up but sticks it out anyhow. And his wife, Ellen? Beverly D’Angelo plays her with the sort of long-suffering patience that speaks volumes.

And it all ends with an explosion and the family and a SWAT team dancing on the lawn, singing Christmas carols. Like I said, it’s ridiculous. It’s full of physical humor, which Chevy Chase does very well, and off-color jokes, which the rest of the cast do well. Randy Quaid, as Eddie, gets a lot of the cruder bits, but I’ve got to say nothing he says makes me laugh harder at him than does the dickie he wears under his white sweater, totally visible through the thin and clingy fabric. And I think that’s the thing about this movie. Yes, it’s outrageous and crude and over the top. But it’s also got these bizarre little details, like the pile of identical gifts given to Clark’s boss, and the faces Ellen makes when she’s squished between Clark and his mother. Somehow this became a classic for my family. We watch it every year and every year we tell each other how silly it is and every year we laugh the whole way through.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

December 20, 2010

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

It wouldn’t be the Christmas season if we didn’t have the traditional viewing of the traditional Griswold family Christmas. This is kind of a guilty pleasure for me. It’s full of ridiculous sight gags, silly slapstick, and painful circumstances. It’s a stupid movie, but I can’t help loving it.

All Clark Griswold wants is to have the perfect family Christmas. With the perfect Christmas tree, the perfect Christmas lights, and the whole family gathered together to share in the Christmas spirit. Maybe his lofty goals are slightly beyond his reach, but damned if he isn’t going to give it his all. Naturally over the coarse of the movie everything goes catastrophically wrong for poor Clark. Nothing is quite as he imagined it would be. The tree he falls in love with can’t really fit in his living room. The lights don’t light up. The family spend more time embarrassing and shouting at each other than spreading Christmas cheer. And Clark (as he is prone to do in these Vacation movies) slowly goes insane and violently snaps at the end.

It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when Chevy Chase was considered funny. I remember getting some laughs out of his antics in the Fletch movies, and of course his pratfalls on the old SNL still cause a chuckle. He played the charismatic leading man in Caddyshack, which always seemed odd to me. His greatest success, however, was his recurring role as Clark in the National Lampoon Vacation movies. By this one, the third in the series, the formula and the character were pretty well established, so it was just a matter of unleashing his ever-hopeful character on yet another series of misadventures.

Reprising her role as Clark’s ever tolerant wife Ellen is Beverly D’Angelo. It’s fun to see her just sort of roll her eyes and accept whatever mad scheme Clark currently has. Her long-suffering and pragmatic attitude help to ground the audience and prove to us that at least one person understands just how silly these circumstances are. As always their children Rusty and Audrey are played by different actors than in the previous movies. This time around it’s amusing to see Juliette Lewis playing a typical teenager embarrassed by her outrageous dad and family. Two years later she would be nominated for an Oscar. It’s fun to see her evolution from this to the Cape Fear re-make to Natural Born Killers and Strange Days. I’m so used to her being the “bad girl” that it’s unintentionally hilarious that here she’s the innocent daughter. We also get Randy Quaid reprising his role from the first Vacation movie as the “bulging” Cousin Eddie. Amanda pointed out as we watched this tonight that Eddie’s antics prove that Clark isn’t completely stupid. He has a brain in his head… he is just a little too enthusiastic. And bumbling.

I keep asking myself as I watch this tonight why I enjoy it. It’s full of silly slapstick, Chevy Chase acting like a bumbling idiot, and embarrassing situations. But in a way it actually does have something to say about cherished Christmas memories. Sure everything in the movie is overblown and extreme, but thery’re reflections, in a way, of more pedestrian events from the Christmas experience that most people in my walk of life are familiar with. Having a family gathering full of loudly bickering people is hardly unheard of. The trials involved in acquiring a tree or decorating for the holidays are well known ones. So what this movie says, in its chaotic way, is that no matter how awful your holiday experience might be there is still hope. In the end Clark does feel like he managed in some way to build the Christmas memories he wanted to. In that regard this movie has a sort of warped nostalgia that reminds me more than anything else of A Christmas Story, which naturally is also going to be part of our twelve days of Christmas this year.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment