By Marc S. Sanders

I have finally righted a serious wrong and watched Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and what a pleasurable experience it has been.  Reader, if this movie lover who gets hopped up on science fiction gobbley gook with laser swords and spaceships can watch an old black and white movie feeling sorrow for its main characters, and elation when the film finishes, then it’s easy to understand how timeless and impressionable Capra’s classic film truly is.

I recall when I had finally seen It Happened One Night, originally released in 1934 and arguably the pioneer of the romantic comedy genre.  I could not help but connect certain moments and pieces of dialogue to the films released while I was growing up, like When Harry Met Sally… and Bull Durham.  Those films took inspiration from Capra’s comedy with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.  Capra pioneered storytelling once again with It’s A Wonderful Life.  As my wife and I watched the movie late last night until nearly two in the morning, I said to her this is like Back To The Future.  My wife said A Christmas Carol.  Both true statements.  So perhaps while Capra was revolutionary with his own storytelling, he might have been adopting some inspiration from what came before as well.  Regardless, I applaud his approach.  Frank Capra is a tremendous gift to the cinematic medium.  If there was a Mount Rushmore for filmmakers, Capra would most certainly be sculpted alongside the likes of Hitchcock, Chaplin and Disney.

George Bailey (James Stewart) has big dreams of leaving his sleepy little town of Bedford Falls and building grand designs of skyscrapers while also exploring the world, beginning with Europe and Alaska and whatever else needs discovering.  Like any of us, our yearning for adventure and the destinies we wish for get interrupted. Before you know it, we ask ourselves if life has passed us by.  It takes a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) to remind George that life has been with him all along; maybe not the life he envisaged, but certainly a life of purpose and significance beyond just himself.

George watches as his high school chums go on to grand accomplishments that pay off in enormous amounts of wealth.  His younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) goes to college, gets married and becomes a celebrated war hero.  However, George remains in Bedford Falls offering loans to his fellow townsfolk that he can’t afford to honor with a business he inherited from his father.  To lend and support comes involuntary to George.  He’s just a good man. 

On the other end of the spectrum is the mean, wealthy miser Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).  Barrymore plays Potter like one of the worst villains in the history of cinema.  An unforgiving, jealous wretch of a man.  His cruelty is long and unmatched, even if he is relegated to a wheelchair.  He knows how destitute George is, despite his unending generosity, but Potter won’t tolerate the admiration George receives.  To squash George’s stature, he’ll buy out his business.  He’ll make every effort to silence George Bailey’s influence.  Potter will even try to take George under his wing where he can maintain complete authority as a big fish in the small pond of Bedford Falls.  Yet, Potter’s never-ending wealth cannot crush the love for George’s humbleness and giving nature.

A favorite device of mine in movies is when the filmmaker can turn the story’s setting into a character all its own.  Examples of this are shown in pieces like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List where the use of thousands of extras and piles of rubble bring testimony to the atrocities of the Holocaust.  In James Cameron’s Avatar (which I just watched as a refresher for the just released sequel), an imaginary neon glowing planet awakens our senses, and we learn that its inhabitants form a symbiont circle with the plant life and animals that dwell there.  In many films, the time and place speak to the viewer.  Bedford Falls is a main character to the story.  Capra makes wonderful use of the Main Street where each business building quickly becomes very familiar as if we have walked into these small town structures a hundred times.  It hearkened me back to my time in Fair Lawn, New Jersey where I would accompany my grandmother on her daily errands to the bank, the kosher deli and the Woolworth’s.  Wherever she went, everyone knew Helen.  In Bedford Falls, the pharmacy with the soda jerk doesn’t look new to me.  It appears like I’d seen it a hundred times before.  Martini’s, the bar, felt like I knew every hob knobber in the joint.  I could smell the ink and feel the creak of the wooden floors in Bailey Building and Loan. 

The townsfolk are also assembled wisely by Capra.  An old man sitting on his porch at night takes in the flirtations that George and soon to be wife Mary (Donna Reed) exchange with one another.  This man represents Bedford Falls taking stock in what’s to come next for our protagonist.  The people in this town have a rhythm to their gatherings.  Capra offers a magnificent shot where the camera is overhead behind George, wearing his overcoat and hat, and the townspeople are facing him at the other end of the sidewalk.  They expect of George, but does George have anything left to give?  I can only see the back of Jimmy Stewart, but I know all too well the expression he’s sending to the people opposite him.  Look at the scene where they march over to George Bailey’s business demanding their monies back.  How one delivers a line followed by another is perfectly timed to James Stewart’s despair.  The ending is beautifully cut as these same folks come into George’s home to offer their sense of giving during a desperate hour of need for George. 

I always knew the story of It’s A Wonderful Life.   Years ago, I saw a stage production where Miguel portrayed George opposite his girlfriend in the role of Mary.  Yet, I was not familiar enough with the surprises that Capra’s film offers.  I just didn’t realize how much fantasy is embedded in the movie as Clarence is meant to be a naïve angel who has yet to earn his wings.  Seems a little too childlike for me on the surface.  I’ll admit I didn’t take to the angels represented as blinking stars early in the picture.  That’s hokey!  However, when Clarence is personified in the latter half of the film, Henry Travers brings a sense of clarity to the purpose of life when he forces George and maybe anyone watching the movie to imagine what things would be like had they never been born.  Reader, I think I’ve seen story adaptations like this on episodes of Family Ties and The Golden Girls.  In this movie, it becomes frightening as we realize the actions we take carry impacts with them.  Had George not rescued his brother Harry from a skating accident, what would have happened to a squadron of soldiers during the war?  Had George not had the nerve to dance with Mary at his high school dance, what would have happened to her?  Had George not existed, then he wouldn’t be available to lend monies to people and what would have happened to a beautiful collection of new homes that would never be erected?  These questions are incorporated into roughly a thirty-minute last act that remind you to appreciate all that you saw earlier in the film.  I want to say its cheesy, but Travers and Stewart really don’t make it that way.  The sequence comes through with forthright honesty from Travers, never going big or outlandish, and genuine anguish from Stewart who convincingly appears like he’s lost everything when earlier he felt like he had nothing. 

I read that Jimmy Stewart did this film shortly after returning from serving in World War II.  He was suffering from PTSD and much of the torment and agony that George exhibits was coming through naturally on film.  This has to be one of the all-time greatest performances on screen.  Jimmy Stewart’s timing in practically every scene of the picture is perfection.  He’s a wide eyed optimist with big enthusiasm to get his life going.  Then he transcends into a teasing flirt with the girl he was not expected to hook up with.  When George tells Mary he wants to throw a lasso around the moon and give it to her, I really believe he could do it.  We have Jimmy Stewart to thank for that.  Later, he’s unexpectedly frightening as he is on the verge of being charged with fraud and penniless.  Stewart is uncompromising in front of Donna Reed and the young actors playing his children.  When he kicks over the table with the train set and gifts, on Christmas Eve, it’s terribly shocking.  Sadly, it’s relatable.  A film from 1946 presents personal problems and struggles that exist today.  That is why It’s A Wonderful Life is such an important piece.  We struggle to live with our struggles.

Frank Capra’s film is necessary to remind each of us to never give up, no matter how hard it gets.  We have value.  We have importance to ourselves and to others.  We are loved.  Yes, it’s only a movie and it conveniently solves itself in its made-up fantasy.  However, those that enrich and occupy space in our daily lives are real and they are folks who depend on us for their fulfillment and happiness.  We are necessary to making their lives better and sustainable.  Reciprocally speaking, they are just as important to mine and your satisfactions.  It might be drippy to claim that Frank Capra’s film is a “feel good movie,” but I prefer to believe that the writer/director, along with Stewart, Reed, Travers and the rest of the company served a higher purpose. They demonstrate that we have all been blessed with an enormous gift filled with the riches of love and friendship that life absorbs and treasures. 

Happy Holidays!!


By Marc S. Sanders

I love Christmas cookies.  Those Santa, snowman and tree shaped sugar cookies with the frosting and sprinkles.  They are my weakness come every December.  Cookie cutter, however, is not necessarily a compliment when talking about a movie.  Four Christmases is as cookie cutter as they come.

Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn are Kate and Brad, an unmarried couple happily going on three years and ready to celebrate the holidays alone in Fiji while lying to their divorced parents, on both sides, about doing charitable service within poorly developed countries.  However, when they arrive at the airport and learn that their flight is cancelled, wouldn’t you know it?!?!  A news reporter is there to capture them on live television revealing their ruse.  Now Brad and Kate have no choice but to visit each parent’s home on Christmas.  With less than an hour and a half running time, let’s chop this up evenly, shall we?  Figure there will be about 15-20 minutes devoted to each parent.  Hence the title… (say it with me now) …Four Christmases.

Let’s go see Brad’s dad first, Robert Duvall, who lives with Brad’s aspiring MMA fighting brothers played by Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw.  They live a simple life with a Zenith television set and Christmas presents that are purchased with a ten dollar or less limit. A gift of a satellite dish is not gonna go over well, and will likely mean a fall off the roof.  Side note: doesn’t falling off a roof seem to happen a lot in Christmas movies?  Also, if the bros are into MMA fighting, well you know that Brad is going to have to endure body slams galore while Kate simply gasps in shock at her boyfriend’s demise.

Transition time in this film happens in the car while going to the next Christmas celebration.  Brad and Kate take these opportunities to question the purpose of their relationship.  They think they have relationship troubles licked by NOT getting married and not devoting themselves to time with family, but are they kidding themselves? 

Next stop is at Mary Steenburgen’s house, Kate’s mom.  Kate’s older sister played by Kristin Chenoweth is here too.  Kate’s agonizing childhood is brought up for laughs like attending a fat camp and reminiscing about her being the one with the cooties and fearful of bounce houses.  Oh, look what’s in the backyard!  A bounce house!  How ironic!  Know where this is going?  A visit to the church of an overzealous evangelist (Dwight Yoakum), where Kate and Brad are quickly recruited to participate in the Nativity play, happens. 

This is about midway through the film and I gotta say I can’t blame Brad and Kate for always lying about going somewhere else for the holidays.  Who wants to live with this kind of torment?  There’s some truth to the adage “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family.”  The movie wants me to recognize the oversight of Brad and Kate and their disregard for family time, but I don’t see it.  These are cruel people that they are confronted with.

Next up, let’s go see Sissy Spacek, Brad’s mom, who is sharing coitus with Brad’s high school best friend.  Enough said there. 

There’s more transitional driving to happen where the question of if Brad wants to get more serious about their relationship is discussed following Kate’s reveal that she took a pregnancy test.  Often in films, it’s the baby factor that tests the relationships.  I wish Hollywood would think outside that box a little.  Having children is not the end all be all, all the time, in building a loving relationship.  Components involving work, religion, and money also come into play.  Mustn’t forget about love too.  Just once, I’d like to see something else.  So many couples live happily without children.  We are even reminded how it’s rude and intrusive to ask “when are you going to have a baby?”  In fact, it is rude to ask that question because it’s too standard and presumptuous.  Hollywood should account for that.  I digress though.

The fourth and final Christmas visit occurs at Jon Voight’s house, Kate’s dad.  Not much wrong here, as we are in the final act of the movie where it’s more about a will they or won’t they conundrum for Brad and Kate.  So, cue the insightful commentary from Voight dressed in a comfy blue sweater.

Look, I can’t deny it.  I laughed at several moments in Four Christmases.  Favreau is hilarious in his tattooed, buzz cut, intimidating presence.  The Nativity play with Brad dressed as Joseph and getting caught up in the hallelujah enthusiasm is funny too.  Duvall is doing his old man redneck routine like he does in Days Of Thunder, and well…c’mon it’s ROBERT DUVALL!!!!

I just wish I didn’t know what was coming from one scene to the next.  In a film this structured, you don’t even have to try to predict what will happen.  You have an involuntary instinct to just know. 

As well, I don’t get a kick out of seeing how uncomfortable characters are made out to be when they are doing nothing but paying a visit.  Poor Brad gets outnumbered by his fighting brothers and suffers the Home Alone slapstick body blows.  Later, a baby spits up all over Kate’s dress, and Brad starts to dry heave at the sight of the mess. That’s not funny.  That’s a shame.  In life that happens.  Babies spit up, but we should feel awful for the victim.  How uncomfortable that must be.  Kate is not Joe Pesci trying to rob a house and getting a deserving paint can to the face.  Kate isn’t laughing at her misfortune.  She’s in shock.  Steenburgen and Chenoworth cackle hysterically, though.  I can’t bring myself to do that.    I feel bad for these two, and all I’m thinking is that it really sucks that they couldn’t make it to Fiji.  I wish they made it to Fiji.  What a shame they never got to Fiji.

Like Home Alone or Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Four Christmases wants to deliver the message that there is nothing better than to spend the holidays with the family, or get married and start a family of your own.  Yet the campaign seems to defeat itself in its demonstration.  I love my family and I love being married, but if I saw this film ahead of what I have now in life, twenty years going strong, I might have thought otherwise. 

Quick reminder: THEIR FAMILIES ARE FRACTURED IN DIVORCE ALREADY!!!!  So, all that Four Christmases tells me is TO HELL WITH FAMILY.  I JUST WANNA GO TO FIJI!!!!!


By Marc S. Sanders

The Tuesday Before Thanksgiving Tradition blazes on for another year as Steve Martin and John Candy travel from New York City to Wichita, Kansas and then who knows where all while trying to reach their final destination of Chicago, Illinois in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

Despite the fact that Planes, Trains & Automobiles was made in 1987 before the age of cell phones, personal navigation systems, Priceline .com and Ubers, it remains a timeless classic of inadvertent comedy. Travel is still as frustrating, maybe more so now, and family kinship is still treasured.

Martin plays Marketing Executive Neil Page, forced to succumb to the unwanted company of Shower Curtain Ring Salesman Del Griffeth (Candy). One inconvenience after another delays Neil from getting home to his family for the holiday. Del wants to be helpful, yet he is anything but.

The roles are perfectly cast. One of the best on screen couples of all time. I imagine had John Candy not passed away so young, he would have been paired up with Steve Martin at least one more time.

Writer/Director John Hughes is a master at taking simple circumstances (detention on a Saturday, skipping school, traveling) and blossoming it into episodes of relatability amplified in both comedy and drama. His knack for dialogue is a huge factor in his scenes. Consider the best scene in the film between Martin and favorite character actor Edie McClurg where 19 F- bombs are tossed over the mix up of a rental car. It happens all the time to any one of us, and Hughes took advantage of the frustration and built comedy that comes from it. Its not funny when you are in the moment. It’s funny when you recall the moment later on. It’s a brilliant scene.

Nut grabbing, taxi races, ride hitching in 1 degree weather, bed sharing with what you think are pillows, burning cars, wrong way driving, encounters with death and the devil, “The Canadian Mounted,” and a perfect excuse to use Ray Charles’ rockin’ “Mess Around” all point to a reason for a climax that arguably (on the first time any of us saw the film) we never expected or considered. If you don’t choke up, you have no soul.

Hughes was all too familiar with the meaning of Thanksgiving when he wrote Planes, Trains & Automobiles. I like to think those that see the film are even better for having watched it.

It’s a very funny movie, but it’s very special movie as well. Give thanks, offer what you can, when you can, and Happy Thanksgiving. 


By Marc S. Sanders

The opening scene to Richard Donner’s 1987 film, Lethal Weapon, always intrigues me. Following an opening credit flyover of Los Angeles at night played to the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock,” a beautiful young, topless woman snorts some cocaine, steps out on a balcony and leaps to her death. It was a great hook for the beginning of a script written by Shane Black. How does a random suicide jump connect to heavily armed mercenaries with an interest in heroin shipments? Two cops at odds with one another will find out.

Mel Gibson and Danny Glover hit the payload of a new and long lasting cinematic franchise playing suicidal cop Martin Riggs and by the book family man Roger Murtaugh; one of the very best on screen pairings since Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” Riggs is ready to die at any given moment following the loss of his loving wife. There’s an effective dramatic moment where Gibson plays a very drunk Riggs, and loads a bullet into the chamber of his Baretta. Donner gets one unsettling take of a man in despair biting down on the weapon, holding it to his forehead and under his chin. It’s pretty frightening. Gibson is great in this moment, red faced and uncontrollably tearful.

The first of the four films remains the best as Black’s story is continuously pealing back layer after layer. There’s something new to the main plot in nearly every scene. A banker is involved. A nightclub as well, and a prostitute’s house is detonated and of course there’s the girl who dove off her balcony. Shane Black seamlessly connects all the dots.

More so, there’s something to the cops relationship in nearly every scene. We see Riggs & Murtaugh begin with a major divide in working together. Riggs has a cavalier attitude of nothing to lose. Murtaugh is content with turning 50, but might not get to enjoy his new year at the expense of his new partner’s reckless behavior. How does Riggs rescue a suicide jumper? Not the way you’d expect I imagine. Efficiently, a trust is built among the two men with Donner doing a fine job of escaping the main storyline for a nice family meal. It’s humorous and charming but necessary to really appreciate these characters. Then the ribbing among the two guys happens. Jokes about Roger’s wife’s cooking and a contest of target practice at the shooting range allow the audience to feel like they just made two new best friends.

On the other side are two worthy villains played by Mitchell Ryan, and more prominently Gary Busey. They play ruthless shadow company soldiers from the Vietnam era ready to eliminate anyone who interferes with their drug dealing venture. Busey is especially good and ruthless. It’s a shame that gossip magazines and a crazy lifestyle have mostly dominated his public life over the years. He’s so good in this role. He had already been an Oscar nominee by the time this film was released. You have to wonder why did it all go so wrong for him. Gary Busey might have been a top billing movie star.

Richard Donner had already been a well established director with Superman The Movie, The Goonies, and The Omen. His action film was even more a testament to his skills. Action scenes are so well filmed in “Lethal Weapon” whether they take place in a Christmas tree lot, a desert outskirt, a nightclub or on Hollywood Boulevard. Credit should also go to Michael Kamen’s music, adventurously dramatic with an air of mystery at times. He works in accompaniment with Eric Clapton too.

I take one issue with Lethal Weapon. The final scene, a jiu jitsu fight between Gibson and Busey in front of the entire police force abandons the story. Nothing new is left to happen. Ever since I saw the film in theaters I asked myself why is this here. Two tough guys just punching the hell out of each other. There’s no development here. There’s no way a moment like this would ever occur. In addition, the editing is choppy at times and I can’t tell who is hitting who. It’s not a terrible violation, but it’s not all that interesting either.

Barring this ending scene, Lethal Weapon is just a well assembled film of action, humor, drama, suspense, and story. At the time, Shane Black was paid a record sum for his script. I still believe it was worth every penny.


By Marc S. Sanders

Love, Actually is like a warm favorite blanket to snuggle up in. Richard Curtis writes and directs a collection of the greatest British actors (along with American Laura Linney) in a kaleidoscope of love and relationships against the backdrop of beautiful London, England during the five weeks leading up to Christmas.

I won’t list my favorite characters or actors. In a film this treasured, this loved and this appreciated, that would be like picking your favorite child. It’s impossible when every single storyline is perfectly executed with thought and tenderness.

The stories of love uncovered, love that’s lost, love based in friendship, and love drowning in heartache beautifully jump from one to the next and then back again. Curtis is wise to not show all of the facets of each story early on. Some stories reveal more about themselves later that’ll leave you hurting for those that are not so merry and those that offer plenty of cheer.

I’m especially happy that Curtis did not compromise in the language or subject matter of his tales. Strong language at times makes for some memorable dialogue and nudity presents a normality to how we really are with those we have affections for.

It’s fair to say everyone in life experiences some variation of love. Yes! I mean everyone. Richard Curtis reminds you that love is a natural instinct, and so we can not focus on the easily recognized gloom of our world. To have these stories captured around Christmas time only enhances what we treasure, or what we wish we didn’t have to endure at times. Curtis’ blazing soundtrack helps along the way.

Love is hard. Love is challenging. Love will sweep you off your feet and love will destroy everything you thought you had. However, love will never leave you with complete regret. It’s never the love we have for someone that we regret. It’s only a wish to have it wholesome, healthy, happy and pure.

Love, Actually is all around.


By Marc S. Sanders

I think we’ve debated enough about whether Die Hard is considered a Christmas movie. So what about the next installment, Die Hard 2: Die Harder?

Truthfully, who cares?!?!?

Director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone) takes over from John McTiernan and he does a capable job of depicting a frenetic Christmas Eve at Dulles Airport in Washington DC, sprinkled with the latest in early 90s technology like fax machines, pagers, tasers and even a reference to Radio Shack. But by golly, the film still remains modern as The Simpsons is shown on local TV.

The ingredients are pretty much the same as the first film and while Alan Rickman is sorely missed, William Sadler does alright as a cold hearted Colonel on a mission to aid an escape of a powerful drug overlord. Bruce Willis’ John McClane will not allow that to happen.

Willis is maverick and defiant again though this script doesn’t allow for better one liners that the first film offered. He’s doing his same one man army schtick though with an endless supply of bullets for his service weapon, and it’s nice to return to form.

Harlin is a good action director featuring snow mobiles, shootouts, shootouts on snow mobiles and exploding planes and satellites. Amazingly enough though, a crowded Christmas airport is unaware of all these massive fires and explosions going off all over the nation’s capital and all proceeds as normal until it’s broadcast on TV in the last act of the film. Meh!!! Everyone has Christmas on their mind.

Heck…well then I guess Die Hard 2 (with the inventive subtitle Die Harder) is in fact a Christmas movie. Glad that’s settled.

Happy Holidays. Let it Snow!


By Marc S. Sanders

The long lasting appeal of Die Hard really stems from so many sources. Most importantly though is the performance of Bruce Willis.

Watching it this evening in a theatre commemorating its 30th anniversary, I found myself still laughing and relishing the fantastic set pieces of editing for great sound and visuals from Director John McTiernan. Yet, tonight Willis is what stood out for me. There’s not much dimension to New York cop John McClane but there is a great transition from being a reserved nervous flyer to an estranged husband with feelings of awkwardness at his wife’s Christmas party and finally to deliriously unhinged and reckless when faced with going up against a superbly brilliant villain from Alan Rickman, his very first film role. Willis goes wild against Rickman’s team of terrorists that hail from all different nationalities and races. (Hans Gruber was an equal opportunity employer.) The mouth on McClane doesn’t hold back for any kind of authority. It’s fun. It’s hilarious and you can’t help but pound your fist in the air with a “right on!”.

Rickman is great as well. His well tailored and groomed persona is a perfect counterbalance to Willis’ lack of class and style. Both are at the top of their game but using different devices to fight with. The playing field of a high rise tower is equal for them. Yet their tactics are different.

McTiernan offers up plenty in side humor from ego minded FBI guys both named Johnson (love that joke) to conniving reporters, to a coked up yuppie hostage and henchmen who all carry themselves differently. McTiernan bravely stops the approach to action to allow his audience to realize the setting on Christmas Eve with great note reminders from a film score by Michael Kamen and even a run through the roses only to have a kick ass swat officer get pricked. A terrorist takes a moment to snack on a Nestle Crunch before a firefight. Porno pictures on the walls of a construction area give Willis an opportunity to offer a glimpse. Great lines as well are so celebrated (“Yippee Kai Yeah Mother Fucker”).

But Willis is the real fun stuff as he gets into hand to hand combat with terrorist Alexander Godunov, he offers a promise to “kill ya, and cook ya” with his “had enough” delivery.

Roger Ebert always took issue with naivety of the law enforcement officials in the film especially actor Paul Gleason as an dumb antagonist. That’s okay and he’s not wrong. However, this is Die Hard where an 80s Los Angelos offers gas for .74 cents and ever relies on their characters getting caught up in a scenario they never fathomed. Had Die Hard been made in post 9/11 it wouldn’t carry that smirk inducing charm. It wouldn’t be fun.

We were fortunate to get one of my favorite Christmas movies when it did come before the age of cell phones and social media.

There were action films long before Die Hard. Yet the original 1988 film set the standard by what most films of action offered in subsequent years. More often than not, they were all fun films in their own right but whether you liked those films or not, they often remain comparisons against Die Hard. That’s the best compliment any film could receive.

FUN TRIVIA: Die Hard is the first of McTiernan’s teddy bear films. Can you name the other one that shows a giant teddy bear with its hero?


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.