Ah, the joys of Christmastime. Stress levels skyrocket, families fall out, and the suicide rate increases substantially. But, even worse than all the above (at least for cinephiles), it’s also the time of the year when Hollywood upchucks Christmas-themed motion pictures, most of which are of a low standard. In the grand pantheon of Christmas movies, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – the third (mis) adventure of the Griswold family – is undoubtedly one of the best (if not the best) on offer. Everyone has a favourite Christmas movie which they view as part of their annual Christmas Eve customs, and for many (this reviewer included) it’s Christmas Vacation. This is the ultimate family holiday flick; a prize-winning blend of hilarious gags and a poignant sense of the Christmas spirit. It’s more enjoyable and charming than A Christmas Story, far jollier than It’s a Wonderful Life, and far better than the trite Hollywood festive flicks which pollute multiplexes every year.
In the preceding Vacation flicks, Clark Griswold (Chase) and his wife Ellen (D’Angelo) took their family across America and across Europe. For this particular entry in the series, however, the Griswold family remain at home in the snowy Chicago suburbs because Clark wishes to provide a “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas”. Clark is not willing to let anyone or anything prevent him from accomplishing this objective. Both sets of grandparents show up along with other unexpected arrivals, and his teenaged offsprings aren’t exactly interested in quality family time… But nonetheless, Clark continually marches on – he’s determined to achieve his selfless goals. Things progressively go from bad to worse as the holy day approaches, however. With irritable neighbours, odious relatives and plain bad luck, the festive season continues to test Clark’s endurance as he tries to weather the storm and work towards providing a memorable, picture-book Christmas.
Don’t expect much of a solid plot – the film just observes Clark as he staggers from one disaster to another. The struggle to go above and beyond for the sake of family constitutes the core of Christmas Vacation. Clark (God bless him!) is prepared to move heaven and earth to fulfil his goal of guaranteeing the best “Griswold Family Christmas” possible. He may be a tad over-the-top and disturbingly committed, but on the inside Clark is just a hardworking family man struggling to ensure the contentment of his family. In amongst the hilarity, Christmas Vacation conveys a strong message, as all Christmas movies should. It has nothing to do with the birth of Christ or the Three Wise Men, though – it merely speaks volumes about finding fun and laughter in the little moments that make life special. Without ever becoming mired in cringe-worthy sentimentality, it also reminds us that familial relationships are what truly matter regardless of what disasters befall us. It also reminds us that you should never light a match near a sewerage drain…
One particular factor that can be appreciated about Christmas Vacation is that the humour is clever and subdued. There are understated, hilarious one-liners (“Dad, you taught me everything I know about exterior illumination!“) and subtle sight gags (a Christmas present is wrapped in Happy Birthday paper). Added to this are moments of great physical comedy, as well as the priceless juxtaposition of Cousin Eddie (Quaid) and the civilised family members. Furthermore, this is a film which never gets old. Even after watching it multiple times, it’s still funny. Scene after scene, it’s so consistently hilarious that it easily puts other Christmas comedies to shame. Christmas Vacation was written by John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Home Alone), making its wide appeal unsurprising. It’s the genuine heart that distinguishes this movie from more generic Christmas offerings, as well as the fact that Hughes was able to encapsulate the spirit of the festive season.Christmas Vacation is simple to enjoy, and even easier to relate to – be it troubles with the Christmas tree, irritating oldies, the decorations, the gifts, or the turkey; all the familiar dilemmas of the period were captured with sugar-coated merriment. Better, Hughes rarely felt the need to go over-the-top.
It’s a bonus that the pacing is immaculate, and that director Jeremiah S. Chechik was able to craft such a technically competent motion picture. On top of all this, the soundtrack is an enchanting cocktail of timeless Christmas tunes and original music. From the Griswold rendition of Deck the Halls to Ray Charles’ The Spirit of Christmas and the terrific opening tune, the songs included will further evoke the holiday spirit in a viewer. Furthermore, the film is tagged with a great opening sequence; a wonderful nod to the classic animated holiday movies of old.
Christmas Vacation is also fascinating in an historical sense: it proves that Chevy Chase was once funny. Even if you’re not Chevy Chase fan, it’s difficult not to laugh at his blundering antics as he fumbles his way through the jolliest holiday of all. Chase may not be the most honoured thespian in history, but he has the role of Clark Griswold down to a tee. Initially a merry soul before descending into frustration and anger, Clark is the definitive embodiment of everyone who has endured the trials and tribulations of the Christmas season. But not all the best laughs were left to Chase – he received great assistance from Randy Quaid playing the repulsive Cousin Eddie (it’s hard to believe Randy and Dennis Quaid are from the same gene pool). In the cast there’s also the charming Beverly D’Angelo whose interactions with Chase are hysterical, and Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis as Rusty and Audrey, respectively. Galecki and Lewis are arguably the best actors to tackle these roles. Other memorable characters mixed into Christmas Vacation include Eddie’s off-colour family, a disgusting dog named Snots, two sets of grandparents, a cantankerous uncle, a clueless aunt and two arrogant neighbours condemned to suffer through Clark’s shenanigans. So many greatly realised characters vying for screen-time…
Frequently cited as the best of the Vacation series and one of the greatest Christmas films ever made, nothing can derail National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Director Chechik transformed John Hughes’ masterful screenplay into a tour de force of comedy; a rare film balancing laugh-out-loud moments and poignancy. Every scene will become eternally embedded in your memory, yet you’ll want to watch it again after the end credits expire. If Christmas Vacation doesn’t make you laugh, then you obviously don’t understand the true meaning of Christmas – which is, of course, flammable toilets and electrified cats.