Note: Summer is coming to a close, and I don't have the budget to do much traveling. So I decided to take some Vacation time with the Griswolds instead. All this week and next, I'll be reviewing the Vacation movies, one of the most loved (and uneven) comedy franchises in modern film.
I think you're all f**ked in the head. We're ten hours from the f**king fun park and you want to bail out? Well I'll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I'm gonna have fun and you're gonna have fun. We're all gonna have so much f**king fun we'll need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You'll be whistling 'Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah' out of you're a**holes! I gotta be crazy! I'm on a pilgrimage to see a moose. Praise Marty Moose! Holy S**t!
-- Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase)
Clark Griswold is my father circa 1988. The glasses. The Izod shirt. The too-short shorts. The unrelenting and misguided enthusiasm for all things family. The barely concealed rage. It's all there. What makes National Lampoon's Vacation work so well, all these years later, is that everyone thinks Clark is based on his or her father. Some of the funniest comedy comes from recognition, and this movie is almost like watching home movies from my youth. Except for the dead aunt on the roof of the car, but we'll get to that in a moment.
They assembled a real dream team for this movie, three giants of comedy at their primes. Behind the camera, you've got Harold Ramis, fresh off his directorial debut (Caddyshack -- not a bad start!). He clearly came to play here, and I'd imagine he had something to do with keeping Chevy Chase's tendency to overact in check. The script was written and based on a short story (click here to read it!) by John Hughes, unquestionably the finest film comedy writer of the 1980s. Disagree with me? Take a look at this list of Hughes scripts produced from 1983 to 1990: Mr. Mom, Vacation, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, Planes Trains and Automobiles, She's Having A Baby, Uncle Buck, Christmas Vacation, and Home Alone. The man was a god.
And you've got Chevy Chase when he was still a vital screen presence, the Will Ferrell of his day. Chase is generally content playing a version of his wisecracking self, and up until Vacation, that was pretty much all he had been asked to do. Clark Griswold is a real character. He's a flawed, relatable, interesting human being, not just a relentless joke machine. It's not Hamlet, but Chase really rises to the occasion here, turning in what is easily his best screen performance.
Chase is matched scene-for-scene by Beverly D'Angelo, who plays the long-suffering wife of Clark. She's sort of a precursor for Cheryl Hines' character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, continually frustrated and annoyed by her husband's ridiculous antics, but her love for him is apparent. She's supportive but she has her limits. Hughes is one of the few male comedy writers who writes strong female characters with funny things to say, and Ellen Griswold is a beaut. (I should also use this opportunity to confess that I paused D'Angelo's shower scene so many times as a kid, that my family's VHS copy was nearly destroyed).
The Vacation movies swapped kids each time out, but the original has far and away the best pair: Dana Barron and the wonderful Anthony Michael Hall. Both kids are devoid of the cutesy mannerisms child actors usually bring to the table, and they give fine, natural performances here. Hall in particular is a gem, stealing scenes left and right from seasoned pros at age 13. Writer John Hughes noticed Hall too, and Vacation kicked off a Hughes/Hall collaboration that none other than Stanley Kubrick would refer to as "the most promising since James Stewart and Frank Capra." The following year Hughes would cast Hall as "The Geek" in his directorial debut, the incredibly great Sixteen Candles.
The Griswolds live in the suburbs of Chicago, where pretty much all of Hughes' scripts are set. The plot is a simple one. The Griswolds travel from Chicago to Walley World in Los Angeles. Ah, but "Getting there is half the fun. You know that!" The movie opens with Clark going to pick up his new car from a sleazy Eugene Levy. In the first of many disappointments, the dealership doesn't have what Clark ordered, the "Antarctic blue super sports wagon with the CB and the optional rally fun pack." Instead, they offer him the "metallic pea" colored Wagon Queen Family Truckster. As Levy says, "You think you hate it now, but wait until you drive it!"
So off they go, and the Griswolds' cross-country trek takes them first into Saint Louis, my hometown, for one of the film's funniest sequences. Any time I'm lost in a dangerous part of town I whip out a barrage of quotes from this portion of the film. "Come on, honey. We can't close our eyes to the plight of the city! Kids, you noticing all this plight?" "Roll 'em up!" "Excuse me, holmes?"
They pay a visit to Cousin Eddie (memorably played by Randy Quaid), his wife Catherine (Miriam Flynn), and his children. Eddie is more of a lovable goof in future installments, but his scenes here are quite dark and twisted. Eddie is dirt poor and can't support his family, because he "got laid off when they closed that asbestos factory." Eddie's son talks masturbation with Rusty, and Eddie's daughter Vicki (played by Jane Krakowski, waaay before 30 Rock) shares marijuana with Audrey. In the film's all-around "wrongest" line, Vicki tells Audrey she french kisses, and that "Daddy says I'm the best at it." Yikes!
They take on two new passengers at Eddie's -- the dreaded Aunt Edna and her violent dog. Both will not survive the trip, and both deaths are nothing short of hilarious. Hammily played by the great Imogene Coca, Edna's ultimate fate and the Griswolds' reaction and response to it is one of the funniest sequences of its decade, and it inspired (or was stolen for, depending on how forgiving you're willing to be) a similar plot point in Little Miss Sunshine.
Along the way, Clark is pursued by the stunningly beautiful Christie Brinkley, listed in the credits as "The Girl in the Ferrari." Brinkley represents the flashier "life that could have been" that surely exists in the fantasy life of all suburban fathers. The bits with her start out funny and light, but then turn uncomfortably real when sex with her becomes an actual, living possibility. Clark doesn't do anything physical with her beyond swimming naked, but you get the feeling he might have if they didn't get caught. The way this plays out, and the way Clark handles it with his son and wife feel messy and complicated and true to life.
The Griswolds do eventually make it to Walley World, and if the film ends rather abruptly, it's because an entirely different ending was shot. Annoyingly, it's nowhere to be found on the 20th Anniversary DVD, but the original ending is said to have been Clark finding Roy Walley's mansion, holding his family hostage and making them sing and dance for his family. The film originally ended on a plane, with the Griswolds realizing they were on the wrong flight. Test audiences hated it, so they did reshoots, and settled on what you see now. The current finale works just fine for me, especially because I get to see one of my favorite comic actors -- the late, great John Candy, in a terrific early role that wouldn't have existed otherwise.
The deaths, the molestation joke, the near-infidelity, the hostage situation, the nudity, the harsh language -- all the dark and politically incorrect material combined with a traditional family comedy is what makes this film such an original, such a classic. I don't want to get too deep on a movie that includes the eating of sandwiches soaked in dog urine, but Clark really does represent the American dream, with all the pain and frustration that comes along with it. He is unflappable in his enthusiasm and optimism, even though he's masking a lot of fear and confusion and regret. One of the most important lines of the film is when Clark tells Rusty "When I was a boy, just about every summer we'd take a vacation. And you know, in 18 years, we never had fun." He acknowledges the futility of trying to pull off the perfect family trip, but refuses to accept it for himself. Clark is going to keep trying, through good times and bad, highs and lows. There's a little Clark in all of us, and there's certainly one in each of our families.
National Lampoon's Vacation is one of the most consistently funny and rewatchable movies of all time, and it easily ranks as one of the best comedies of the 1980s.
Tune in tomorrow for my review of European Vacation...