National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Guilty pleasure (n): a film that a critic shamefacedly admits to liking even though the prevailing opinion, as put forth by serious members of the profession, is that the movie is a piece of crap.

Christmas Vacation is considered by many film critics to be a "guilty pleasure" - largely because some of the set pieces are as hilarious as they are juvenile. Unfortunately, Christmas Vacation also suffers from the malaise that plagues the other three Vacation films (1983's Vacation, 1985's European Vacation, and 1997's Vegas Vacation) - too little material to sustain a 90+ minute motion picture. At about two-thirds of its official length, Christmas Vacation might have been a joy to the world; as it is, a few too many overlong and lame scenes make us want to deck the Griswolds (Clark in particular).

These days, there are really only five staple Christmas films: Frank Capra's classic It's A Wonderful Life, Scrooge/A Christmas Carol (pick a version, although the 1951 Alistair Sim one is the most beloved), A Miracle on 34th Street (the original, not the remake), A Christmas Story, and Christmas Vacation. The universal popularity of the last film is not difficult to explain - it's diverting but doesn't require undivided attention, the rights are cheap enough that almost any TV station can (and does) broadcast it, and, despite its failings, it is funny. Oh, and there aren't that many non-saccharine Christmas films that are vaguely watchable. If we take away Christmas Vacation, what are we supposed to substitute for it?

Christmas Vacation marked John Hughes' final outing with the Griswolds (he was not involved in the 1997 flop, Vegas Vacation). His handpicked director, Jeremiah Checkik (whose future embarrassments include Diabolique and The Avengers), helmed the project using Hughes' script. In some ways, the antics in this film presaged the kinds of pratfalls and other physical comedy that characterized Hughes' 1991 Christmas season hit, Home Alone. The level and nature of humor in Christmas Vacation is in the same vein as that which characterized the previous two Vacation outings - sporadically amusing, occasionally uproarious, but with plenty of dumb jokes that fall painfully flat.

After leaving their house to go on their two previous vacations, this time the Griswolds are staying home - and inviting the whole family to visit. While Clark (Chevy Chase) wires up the house with 25,000 colored lights, Ellen (Beverly D'Anglelo) prepares the holiday meal, and the kids, Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis), bemoan the sleeping arrangements, the guests start arriving. The first to show up are the in-laws: Clark's mother, Nora (Diane Ladd), and father, Clark Sr. (John Randolph), and Ellen's parents, Art and Frances (E.G. Marshall and Doris Roberts). Next to arrive are Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), his wife, Catherine (Miriam Flynn), and their brood. Finally, there are Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel), both of whom are hard-of-hearing and bordering on senility. Meanwhile, the neighbors (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) watch what's going on next door with a growing mixture of disbelief and irritation.

The reason Christmas Vacation works is that it takes situations that are familiar to most families and produces humor by exaggerating them to astounding lengths. Nevertheless, at the core of each vignette lies an experience that most viewers will be intimately familiar with. Many of the common "Christmas situations" are crammed into these 90 minutes: the trek to get the family Christmas tree, shopping at a department store, fumbling around in the attic, putting up the decorations, cooking the holiday dinner, and dealing with too many relatives in too little space. Of course, since our heroes are the Griswolds, Murphy's Law is in full force - anything that can go wrong, does.

The most humorous sequence in the film relates to Clark's frustrated attempts to light up his life (and that of everyone else in the neighborhood) by creating one of the most tacky displays of illuminated Christmas decorations ever seen. Of course, Clark's first few attempts meet with failure, but, once a light bulb goes off in Ellen's head, pandemonium ensues. The Griswolds, standing out in the cold on the front lawn, are elated. The "Hallelujah Chorus" plays on the soundtrack. And the neighbors are awakened from a sound winter's nap by more than a clatter - and, when they spring from the bed to see what's the matter, they end up tumbling down the stairs.

The cheapest (and perhaps heartiest) laugh occurs later in the film, when a fluffy cat fails to realize that chewing on a string Chirstmas of tree lights may not be the best way to prolong any of its nine lives. Then there's the squirrel in the Christmas tree - a sequence that results in a group of grown people running away from a small, basically harmless creature whose home has been unexpectedly moved from the chilly outdoors into someone's living room.

Like all of the Vacation movies, Christmas Vacation mixes the bad with the good. Its biggest misstep is a maudlin and unpleasant subplot involving Clark's skinflint boss, who decides that traditional Christmas bonuses are extravagant wastes. Running a close second is the inclusion of Randy Quaid, who manages to be consistently unfunny. Quaid's inept performance casts a pall over much of the film's second half - every scene without him is like a breath of fresh air. His character, Cousin Eddie, is supposed to get under Clark's skin. Unfortunately, in the process, Quaid manages to get under the viewer's.

One of the great unanswered questions in Hollywood is how Chevy Chase still gets work. Although his appeal is not as incomprehensible as that of, say, Pauly Shore, it's not obvious, either; "range" is one word no one will ever use in conjunction with Chase's acting ability. I suppose people like him because they see him as a bigger loser than themselves, and it's always nice to believe that, no matter how inept one is, there's always someone worse off. At any rate, Chase plays Clark exactly as we expect him to. That's actually a positive statement, since anything else would be disappointing. Likewise, Beverly D'Angelo is back in her largely thankless role as Clark's supportive partner and the family voice of reason.

One of the ongoing jokes in the Vacation films is that the kids never look the same from movie to movie. This time around, the parts are filled by Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki - two actors who eventually rose above these humble origins. Lewis would go on to fool audiences into believing she could act with a tremendous performance in Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake (before reverting to form in later films). Galecki, meanwhile, would develop into a decent character actor. Aside from Lewis and Galecki, the supporting cast is top-heavy with recognizable names, including John Randolph, E.G. Marshall, Diane Ladd, and a pre-"Seinfeld" Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

For anyone trying to get into the Christmas mood, Christmas Vacation is perhaps not the best choice of cinematic fare. It doesn't go all that well with chestnuts roasting on an open fire (unless they're exploding all over the place) or Jack Frost nipping at your nose (unless it results in frostbite). However, for those who are tired of peace on earth and goodwill to men, the third outing of the Griswolds offers a reminder that, for some, the real meaning of the season has as much to do with annoying the neighbors and putting up with the relatives as it does with something more wholesome.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (United States, 1989)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 1989-12-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1