The hills are alive with the sound of Griswold! This s**t's been around for a very long time!
-- Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase)
I'm reviewing all the films in the Vacation series over the next couple weeks, and in preparation I've been re-watching each of the movies. I thought I'd be able to save myself some time and skip National Lampoon's European Vacation, as I just saw it again a couple of months ago. Then I took a seat at the computer and realized I couldn't remember a damn thing about the film. I saw it a few times growing up, I saw it very recently, and yet nothing was sticking out in my mind. European Vacation is that kind of movie -- not terrible necessarily, just instantly and powerfully forgettable.
The movie would seem to have everything going for it. Sure, Harold Ramis was out as director, but was replaced by the great Amy Heckerling (whom I recently saw at an Elvis Costello concert, which earns her unlimited cool points even without the movie career). Heckerling was hot off the excellent Fast Times as Ridgemont High and the cult favorite Johnny Dangerously, and seemed a perfect fit for the material. John Hughes returned to flesh out the story and co-write the script. Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo were reprising their classic roles.
So why is European Vacation so completely underwhelming? I intended to start each Vacation entry with a memorable line from the film, and it took me forever to pick a decent one for European. Where is Hughes' sparkling, endlessly quotable dialogue?
That's a pretty controversial topic in the Vacation universe. According to series producer Matty Simmons, Hughes wrote the first few drafts of European Vacation, but refused to write any more after his agreement expired because he was busy working on The Breakfast Club. Hughes submitted an unfinished script to Warner Brothers after the film was given the go-ahead, and Robert Klane (writer of the dreadful Howie Mandel vehicle Walk Like A Man and Weekend at Bernie's) was hired to finish the script. If you believe Hughes today, he wasn't nearly as involved in the film as the credits make him out to be. In fact, he told Entertainment Weekly in 1994 that he had nothing to do with European Vacation, adding "I've always had the good fortune to distance myself from s**t."
Another problem this time out is the lackluster Griswold kids. Funnily enough, Anthony Michael Hall decided to make Hughes' classic Weird Science instead of European (excellent decision, AMH!), and the producers decided to recast both Griswold children. So we're left with the extremely bland Jason Lively (who does not live up to his name) as Rusty, and Dana Hill, who fares better as a weight and boyfriend-obsessed version of Audrey. Hill is fairly obnoxious, but at least she gives the role some character. All the material about her weight struck me as unnecessary, especially a sequence where she dreams of gorging herself on a table full of delicious treats. It seemed pretty cruel and out-of-place to me, but I guess that wouldn't matter if it remembered to be, y'know, funny. Heckerling's mastery of teenage turmoil in Fast Times and later Clueless eludes her here.
The Griswolds win the European trip on the game show Pig in a Poke, hosted by John Astin. Astin is aping the grope-happy ex- Family Feud host Richard Dawson, and gets the movie off to an uncomfortable start making out with the 14-year-old Audrey. The Griswolds' trip takes them to all the European landmarks. Clark endlessly drives around the Lambeth Bridge roundabout ("Hey kids! Big Ben! Parliament!"). They knock over Stonehenge with their car. A misguided beret toss sends a dog jumping off the Eiffel Tower. Rusty takes a shine to a hooker. Ellen gets kidnapped in a lame subplot. They drive on the wrong side of the road (ho ho!). Audrey rings up a huge phone bill calling her boyfriend (legendary 80s a-hole Billy Zabka, of The Karate Kid, Just One of the Guys, and Back to School). They injure Eric Idle a lot. I'm not saying these aren't funny ideas, but they're lifelessly executed and just kind of sit there on the screen. I'm totally speculating here (and I am a total John Hughes apologist so take it with a grain of salt), but I'd imagine Hughes wrote up a bunch of funny scenes and ideas and then bailed on the project, leaving them to be executed with little of his trademark wit.
But I don't really know what went on behind the scenes. You'd think I would have learned something from listening to the Chevy Chase commentary on the DVD, but I should warn you that it is one of the worst tracks ever recorded. It's as though no one told Chase (presumably watching the film whilst sitting in a lonely old mansion, Sunset Boulevard-style) that he's supposed to comment on the movie in a commentary. There's a whole lot of silence, and then every couple of minutes, he'll say something along the lines of "My God, I am a hilarious performer!" He just sounds bored watching the movie, and understandably so.
It is worth noting that the family name is spelled "Griswald" with an "A" here for the only time in the series run -- a pretty perfect example of just how lazy European Vacation is. This Vacation has none of the heart of the original, and roughly one hundredth of the laughs. I got a chuckle out of the Sound of Music spoof, and spent the rest of the running time checking my watch. If the Vacation franchise had stopped at three films, it would be a lot easier to hate on European Vacation for ruining the series. But knowing the darkness that lies ahead, I'll be generous and just call it a missed opportunity.
Read my previous review from this series: National Lampoon's Vacation