By Marc S. Sanders
Not until December 25, 2021, had I seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Friends and colleagues couldn’t believe it, the same way they can’t believe I’ve never eaten a cheeseburger. I’m not a big Chevy Chase fan. I think the one film I like of his, because of him, is Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times. The guy is just not a draw for me. My fellow Cinephiles (Thomas Pahl, Miguel Rodriguez and Anthony Jason) introduced me to Fletch earlier this year. Wow, did that movie start with a really interesting premise that just stumbled like 2,000-pound stone slowly sinking to the bottom of a very deep and empty sand trap. The film didn’t work because of Chevy Chase. Once it got past its exposition, Fletch relied too heavily on boring and unfunny schtick from a very unfunny Chevy Chase. I was waiting for Christmas Vacation to fall into that same trap. For a fraction of the film, thankfully, it didn’t.
By and large, what works with Christmas Vacation is because of its writer John Hughes, who writes with the consistency of humor that worked in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and especially Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The slapstick is most apparent here, then in other Hughes film released before. (Home Alone would win that record title a year later, of course.) As I said, Christmas Vacation relies entirely on the slapstick element. There is no sensitive allowance for warm hugs or coming of age realizations and character arcs. Clark Griswold gets in one predicament after another. Like a mediocre Three Stooges short, some of those predicaments work.
Pun intended, the biggest highlight is when Clark decorates his Chicago suburb home with an infinite number of lights, eventually disrupting the next-door neighbors intimate candlelit dinner and blinding them into pratfalls. The timing is pure John Hughes craftsmanship; John Hughes…not Chevy Chase.
Stupid set ups include Clark getting trapped in the attic, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, as well as him hanging from the outside gutters and losing control of a tall ladder. What works in these moments are what worked for the humor in Ferris Bueller with the school principal character, or Steve Martin’s character in Planes, Trains… . Clark tries to come up with a way to get out and tip toe across the floor beams of the attic, trying to avoid a haphazard accident in the process. The floors creak. The items he finds in the attic squeak and grind. When he’s hanging from the gutter, the rusty piece of metal is gradually giving way as he holds on for dear life. I appreciated the prop humor. The victim might be Chevy Chase, but that could’ve been anybody. I guess sometimes, the pie is funnier than the one who gets it in the face. So, there are moments that work. I like the beginning as well where the dumb patriarch takes his family out to the forest to literally cut down a tree and then carries his optimism that he can actually fit it in the living room. Moe, Larry and Curly had this kind of positivity when they convinced the Hoi Polloi that they could repair a plumbing problem in a mansion.
Much doesn’t work here either, though. An overabundance of relatives show up to celebrate the holiday. The set up is the same as in Hughes’ first film, Sixteen Candles. However, in that film, each grandparent was given a moment to stand out among the masses. Christmas Vacation doesn’t capitalize on that so much despite great talent that features Diane Ladd, Doris Roberts and EG Marshall. No relative is a given a personality or unique and humorous annoyance.
The most remembered relative is Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, but honestly, I found nothing funny about the guy and I thought he only served for irritated facial expressions to capture Chevy Chase in close up. I know. I know. Before seeing this film, I was well aware of the “Shitter’s full” routine. Okay. Okay. Shit, poop, doodie, whatever you want to call it is funny. Shit is God’s endless joke on the living beings he/she/they created. A two word sentence of dialogue while draining a hose full of shit does not a movie make, though. Otherwise, there is nothing marvelous about Randy Quaid in this film or the other relative extras that appear. Clark’s (third time recast) kids could have also been funny but the script doesn’t let them. There was just no material for these people on the page. We know how pitch perfect actors like Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki have become over their careers. I’d argue they are funnier and more talented actors than Chevy Chase ever was, but like the other supporting players the script didn’t consider the talent. Beverly D’Angelo is back as Clark’s wife too. Moving on…
I could have had regretted watching this film. I finally, finally, FINALLY gave in per the insistence of practically everyone I know, on a whim, when I saw it available on HBO Max. I don’t regret watching it. Truly I don’t. Yet, I don’t feel better having done so either. Christmas Vacation is not an all-time great comedy or holiday film. I don’t believe it did anything for anyone’s career. Notice I didn’t mention the director’s name, because it doesn’t matter and I haven’t heard from that guy since this picture.
The film is just there, I guess, and as each passing December comes and goes, it is awarded new life…. unlike the electrocuted, exploding cat that perishes under a love seat. Now that’s funny! Thankfully, this precious feline gave up his lives for a chuckle from me. Had it been Chevy Chase though, then this review might have gone in another direction.