Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas! No, no. We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here! We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny f**king Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of a**holes this side of the nuthouse!
-- Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase)
After European Vacation, no one had any reason to believe the Vacation series would get back on track. Not to mention, almost without exception, movie series tend to get worse as they go along, right? Well, not this time.
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation ranks just slightly behind the original in terms of laughs, and it packs in even more heart without resorting to schmaltz. Again, I'm going to give a lot of the credit to John Hughes, the sole writer this time out. He makes just about every line funny, memorable, and quotable. He gives us a whole lot of characters, each well-defined and amusing. Hughes may have hit his peak here unfortunately, because after the following year's Home Alone, the man never wrote a great script again. (I think Dutch is hilarious, but even with all my Hughes love I can't call it "good.")
It was a "last hurrah" of sorts for Chevy Chase, too. Chase is really terrific here in what is, I'm sad to say, his final funny starring role (although I didn't see The Karate Dog). Oh, Chevy. What happened? Beverly D'Angelo returns, and is typically great ("Clark! Slow down! I don't want to spend the holidays dead!"). And my Lord, does Randy Quaid step it up here as Cousin Eddie. Chase's exchanges with Quaid are some of the film's funniest moments ("Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?"). If Quaid's delivery of gems like "Merry Christmas! Sh*tter was full!" and "That's the gift that keeps on giving the whole year!" don't make you laugh, well ... lighten up.
The Vacation series never saw a better Audrey than Juliette Lewis, who perfectly nails the mortified attitude of the teenage girl ("Do you sleep with your brother? Do you know how sick and twisted that is?"). Lewis is a fascinating actress, and she's got some golden line readings here. Maybe Martin Scorsese was a fan? Two years later she would put a much darker spin on the bored teenager in his excellent Cape Fear. Roseanne's Johnny Galecki is likable enough as the new Rusty, certainly an improvement over Jason Lively, but far from the glory of Anthony Michael Hall.
It's difficult to believe this was director Jeremiah Chechik's (Benny & Joon) first movie. He should be commended for handling such an enormous, scenery-chomping supporting cast and making everybody shine. John Randolph (the original Frank Costanza!) is beyond lovable here as Clark's dad. He gives the movie a lot of its heart, and his scenes with Clark are a perfect mix of touching and funny. ("Our holidays were always such a mess. How did you get through it?" "I had a lot of help from Jack Daniels.") A pre-Everybody Loves Raymond Doris Roberts gets some big laughs as Clark's drunken mother-in-law, and E.G. Marshall kills as her relentlessly negative husband, Art. When Clark finally gets the Christmas light-saturated house to shine in all its glory (one of the film's most memorable and hilarious set pieces), Art's brutal response is: "The little lights are not twinkling, Clark." The cast is so overstuffed with talent that the great Diane Ladd barely registers as Clark's mom.
There is a minor subplot involving Clark's snooty neighbors, played by Nicholas Guest and my dream woman Julia Louis-Dreyfus. They've got the standard "Margaret Dumont" roles, but they're much funnier than they had to be, and provide some great contrast to the Griswolds. Fun fact: Warner Brothers owns the street the Griswolds live on, and the neighbors live in the same house that Murtaugh (Danny Glover) owned in the Lethal Weapon films!
Funny as Christmas Vacation is throughout, it really kicks into high gear once William Hickey and Mae Questel (the original voice of both Betty Boop and Olive Oyl!) enter the picture as Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany. Every time my family watched this movie, there'd be a big roar of anticipation just seeing them walk up to the house. Every family has a few relatives that make you wonder "How are these people still alive?" That is definitely the case with Lewis and Bethany. The combination of the ditzy, squeaky-voiced Questel ("Is your house on fire, Clark?" "Don't throw me down, Clark!") and the sarcastic, gravelly-voiced Hickey ("You couldn't hear a dump truck driving through a nitroglycerin plant!") makes for some enormous, cleansing yuks. From their entry point to the SWAT team invasion ending, the movie is a streamlined, relentless comedy machine.
To wit: Bethany's delivery of "grace." The dry turkey ("Here's the heart!"). The death of the cat ("If that thing had nine lives, he just spent 'em all"). The squirrel attack ("SQUIRREL!"). Clark's Christmas "bonus" and Chase's bravura delivery of the subsequent freak-out ("I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless, dickless, hopeless, heartless, fat-ass, bug-eyed, stiff-legged, spotty-lipped, worm-headed sack of monkey s**t he is. Hallelujah! Holy s**t! Where's the Tylenol?"). The Gene Autry-scored police attack ("That's pretty low, mister! If I had a rubber hose, I would beat you--"). The sewer explosion and Uncle Lewis flying through the air. The Star Spangled Banner. I'm laughing just typing it all out. Most comedies would be thrilled to have the laughs of any five-minute chunk of Christmas Vacation.
There's really no plot this time out, not even one as simple as "The Griswolds need to get from Point A to Point B." They don't. They're at home, which calls into question the "Vacation" tag, but that's neither here nor there. Clark just wants to put on a good Christmas for his family. This is something the makers of today's comedies don't seem to understand - a complex plot isn't necessary to have a great comedy, and sometimes relying too much on story can even work against the laughs. Every comedy doesn't have to be "A blind guy falls in love with a deaf girl!" or some other such high-concept mumbo-jumbo. As long as you have a funny script and funny performers, the laughs will come.
Anyone with a family will find much to relate with here. Most people think their families are insane, and most of them are right. It can be reassuring to see one that's a little crazier than yours. Christmas Vacation leans a bit too heavily on slapstick at times (did Clark need to get hit in the face with planks three times in a row up in that attic?), but that's easy to forgive when you're clutching your sides.
I think it's safe to say that Christmas Vacation (along with A Christmas Story) has overtaken It's a Wonderful Life as the Christmas family movie of choice. Is it a better film? Of course not. But when the guests won't leave and the house is a mess and your drunken grandmother is screaming at your aunt, sometimes you just need to laugh. Christmas Vacation makes me laugh -- hard -- every single time.