Saturday, December 15, 2012

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) - A Modern Christmas Classic

DVD cover Christmas Vacation 1989
DVD cover of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."
was best known for directing films teen-oriented flicks like "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Uncle Buck." However, Hughes also was a terrific writer of such films as the "Home Alone" series and the popular "Beethoven" (don't sneer at a successful five-film series!). Warner Brothers' "Christmas Vacation" (1989) aka "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, was one of Hughes' best writing efforts, enhanced as in Hughes' earlier "National Lampoon's European Vacation" by Chevy Chase repeating his earlier success as the character of Clark Griswold, an ordinary guy who deadpans his way through misfortunes only to reap the rewards of unlikely success. This Christmas comedy which doesn't even feature Christmas (it ends on Christmas Eve) is a cult favorite and gets shown every holiday season. It also is a rare case of a sequel which may be better than the original in almost every respect.

Driving Christmas Vacation 1989
"Clark, we're driving under a truck."

Chicago suburbanite Clark Griswold goes out to the country to find a proper Christmas tree. He does find one, but he has nothing to cut it down with, so he yanks it out of the ground, roots and all. Back home, his parents and those of his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) arrive for the holiday, quickly annoying everyone. Clark remains positive and starts putting up his outside Christmas lights, which are so dense and numerous (like your own neighbor down the block who makes everyone else look bad with his lawn full of Santas and reindeer) that they cause a temporary power outage throughout Chicago.

Clark and Ellen Christmas Vacation 1989
"Everything turned out perfectly"

Ellen's cousin Catherine (Miriam Flynn) and her husband Eddie (Randy Quaid) arrive unexpectedly, having lost their home in Kansas. After Clark says he wants to provide them with a good Christmas, Eddie gives him a list of things to get, but adds, "And be sure and get something for yourself, too."

Clark smiling Christmas Vacation 1989
Clark re-lives his childhood in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

Clark is worried about his Christmas bonus, so cousin Eddie decides to help and drives over and kidnaps Clark's boss, Frank (Brian Doyle-Murray), bringing him back to Clark's house to be interrogated. Frank's wife Shirley (Natalia Nogulich) calls the police, who descend on Clark's house with a SWAT team. Frank, though, being in the holiday spirit, drops the charges and reinstates Clark's bonus, causing Clark to faint in relief.

Griswold house lit up Christmas Vacation 1989
"Better switch to the nuclear plant now!"

Afterwards, uncle Lewis (William Hickey) accidentally ignites the storm drain outside which cousin Eddie had filled with raw sewage from his RV. Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel), completely oblivious, then gathers the family for a sing-a-long.

Clark and Cousin Eddy Christmas Vacation 1989
Randy Quaid - before he went crazy - doing his brilliant turn in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

It is a fairly thin plot, but that's not the point of watching a "Vacation" film. Everybody gives idiosyncratic performances, stereotyping the sorts of bad behaviors you dread having to endure as the holidays approach. Everything, of course, is exaggerated for comic effect, which works brilliantly in the face of Clark's refusal to allow his enthusiasm to be diminished on matter what craziness happens around him.

Chevy Chase delighted Christmas Vacation 1989
Something turned out right in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"!

Along the way to Christmas, what are normally incidentals in a film become the feature events. The film is "character driven." Everybody bickers constantly, and Clark's son Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and daughter (Juliette Lewis) treat him with utter contempt throughout. The Yuppie neighbors are snooty, the turkey gets seriously over-cooked, and a wild squirrel sneaks in with the Christmas tree and causes havoc at dinner. The whole point is the hidden comic bits (like cousin Eddie gratuitously kicking Clark's boss as he walk up the sidewalk to the house) that sound silly on paper (and probably as often as not were unscripted), but are hilarious in context.

Cousin Eddy RV Christmas Vacation 1989
Cousin Eddy's RV in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

It is a timeless holiday classic that can be enjoyed year-round, but is best seen as Christmas approaches and the in-laws are on the verge of coming over. The moral of the film is that disasters always are lurking nearby, but a positive attitude and belief in the good that lies inside of everyone will carry you through. In that sense, this is a perfect film to convey the true holiday spirit of ordinary, humdrum life.

SWAT team arrives Christmas Vacation 1989
Hands UP! An unexpected moment in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

After you get worn out with all the cheery forced goodness in "It's A Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (which, of course, are must-views during the season), this is the film to turn to if you want to relax a little bit and find the humor in your in-laws who are still camping out in your living room a week after Christmas and eating all your food. This John Hughes effort may not have Molly Ringwald in it, and sadly Hughes is no longer with us, but "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" reflects the peak of Hughes' brilliance and definitely is well worth your time.


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