It shouldn’t be a surprise that John Hughes wrote National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which came out in December 1989.
Throughout the ’80s, if there was a good-natured comedy with a twinge of melodrama, there was a chance Hughes was involved, either as writer or director, or both. It was a remarkable run, starting with his screenplay for National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978 and extending through his acclaimed teen comedies of the next decade, including The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, all of which he wrote and directed.
By 1989, however, his run was coming to an end. Christmas Vacation was the third Chevy Chase vehicle Hughes had written — after the original Vacation and the sequel, European Vacation — and it would be the second-to-last film of his that would make a huge splash. (Home Alone, from 1990, which he wrote the screenplay for, would be the last.) And it was, at the time, seen as only a middling success. “You have the odd sensation, watching the movie,” wrote Roger Ebert in a representative review, “that it’s straining to get off the ground but simply doesn’t have the juice.”
Since then, it’s come to be seen as something of a holiday classic. This has as much to do with the way we watch movies around the holidays as it does with nostalgia and the Christmas spirit.
The movie stars Chase as the redoubtable Clark Griswold, a dad who helped set the archetype for dads as we now understand them and whose family suffers him in exactly the same proportion that he suffers to make them have a good time. He has, in previous installations of the series, dragged his loved ones on a road trip across America to visit an amusement park called Walley World and then to Europe on a vacation they won on a game show. In both cases, their enjoyment was crippled by a series of disastrous escapades he’s gotten them into, though, in the end, the experiences managed to bring them together as a family.
It’s the perfect setup for a Christmas movie. This time, the Griswolds aren’t going anywhere; the chaos is coming to them. Instead of the perfect vacation, he’s going to create the perfect Christmas.
The complications to perfection pile up rapidly. In his enthusiasm, Griswold picks a 30-foot Christmas tree for their 10-foot living room. He decorates his house with enough lights to shut down the city’s power grid, but he can’t get them to turn on. He gets locked in the attic for a day, and nearly kills himself trying to impress his kids when he coats a saucer sled with a super-slick food additive his company has developed.
And then his ne’er-do-well cousin-in-law Eddie shows up with his family, overcrowding what was already a packed-to-the-gills house. But the cherry on top of the Christmas disaster comes when Griswold’s boss decides to cancel the annual bonus and give out memberships to the Jelly of the Month Club instead. Griswold has already banked on the money and put a deposit down on a swimming pool for his family. In his rage, he declares that all he wants for Christmas is for his boss to be kidnapped and delivered to him, tied up and with a bow on his head.
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Cousin Eddie does just that, which leads to a SWAT team invasion of the Griswold family house, a change of heart on the part of the boss and a tearful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” after the gas from the sewage Eddie has dumped into the gutter out front catches fire and explodes. A plastic sleigh and reindeer sent up by the explosion flies in front of the moon, delighting the children. Christmas spirit is restored. All is well with the world once again.
Ebert was right about the movie: It doesn’t quite come together, and there’s little of the madcap originality and joy of the original Vacation. (The less said about the European trip, the better.) But who has time around the holidays to actually sit down and watch a full movie? As a collection of scenes, some of which are indelibly stuck in our collective memory, Christmas Vacation is tremendous fun.
Like so much of Hughes’ work, the movie is a repository of memorable characters. Beverly D’Angelo strikes just the right notes of exasperation and patience as Clark’s wife, Ellen. Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis each have moments as the long-suffering Griswold children, Russ and Audrey. Julia Louis-Dreyfus even has a cheeky spot as an annoying yuppie neighbor driven to distraction by Griswold’s antics.
There’s also an entertaining trivia angle. The movie features a number of performers with famous relatives. Randy Quaid, who plays Cousin Eddie, is the older brother of Dennis Quaid. Brian Doyle-Murray, who plays Griswold’s boss Frank Shirley, is the older brother of Bill Murray. Juliette Lewis’ father, Geoffrey Lewis, is a longtime character actor, and Diane Ladd – who was nominated for three Academy Awards in a long and illustrious career, and plays Griswold’s mother Nora here – is the mother of Laura Dern. Finally, Nicholas Guest, who plays the other half of the annoying yuppie couple next door, is the brother of This Is Spinal Tap‘s Christopher Guest.
But at the heart of it all is Chevy Chase. Like Will Farrell’s Elf, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a movie stumbled across late at night after a party or while wrapping presents or in a quiet moment before dinner and after running errands. Chase, a sublime comedic actor, is able to draw a laugh from a pratfall or a facial expression as easily as he can with a pause in dialogue or a non sequitur. In every scene, the humor and accuracy of his portrayal of the aggrieved, overly hopeful dad hits home.
It’s in these bits that remind us of ourselves and our families — and the way it conveys the desperate hope, potential dismay and frequent joy of the holidays — that the movie retains its magic.