On Thanksgiving Day this year, I sat with my girlfriend's lovely family eating turkey and watching Home Alone, and it occurred to me that in the hustle and bustle of reviewing new movies, I seldom take the time to go back and revisit the holiday movies that I remember from my childhood. Even among the titles I've viewed for this "Shelf Life" series, few of them were seminal kids movies, whether they were from my own childhood, or from those of previous or subsequent generations, and none of them have been traditional holiday or holiday-themed films.
Home Alone was a film I saw at a formative time in my young life – I was 14 or so – but National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation was probably more important to me, since it balanced gingerly on the line between family entertainment and more grown-up fare. In hindsight, it's probably more oriented for teenagers and kids than anyone, even with (or maybe because of) its abundance of potty humor, but it seemed like 20 years was about the right amount of time to take between viewings. Which is why Christmas Vacation is this week's "Shelf Life" subject. (Well, that and Warner Home Video recently released a deluxe box set including one of those moose-shaped eggnog glasses.)
The Facts: Written by John Hughes (in between Uncle Buck and Home Alone) and directed by Jeremiah Chechik (who went on to direct Benny & Joon and The Avengers), Christmas Vacation was released on December 1, 1989. Reuniting original Vacation stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo (but not the kids from either of the previous installments), the film follows the beleaguered Griswold family as they suffer through a tense holiday season, facing disapproving relatives, cranky neighbors, spendthrift bosses, and runaway squirrels.
Opening opposite Back to the Future Part II, which was in its second week, the film debuted at Number Two in its opening weekend, and went on to earn more than $71 million in domestic receipts, which more than recouped its rumored $27 million budget. Currently the film holds a 61 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and although it didn't win any awards or nominations, it rejuvenated the Vacation franchise for at least two more installments.
What Still Works: While John Hughes' ability to balance slapstick with sentiment fluctuated wildly in the late 1980s and early '90s, he is really able to successfully capture Clark's sense of holiday nostalgia, and subsequently, angst when he's unable to recreate the kind of Christmas that he has in his head. As silly as this sounds for such an otherwise broad and goofy film, the scenes where Chase actually stops "reacting" to everything and just acts are pretty great, even evocative; particularly the scene where he's trapped in the attic watching home movies of his own childhood (which also has a terrific, subtle payoff in one of the movies), Chase really defines what it is that makes Clark such a relentless purveyor of family fun.
Otherwise there are a few solid goofs that manage to generate laughs, but because most of the humor is the kind that works best when first discovered (rather than being repeatedly revisited), the emotionality of the film is what plays strongest two decades later.
What Doesn't Work: Most of the rest of it, unfortunately. Quite frankly, this is a single-serving comedy, meaning its jokes work probably one time and that's it, and 20 years and 2,000 bad comedies later there's almost nothing here to distinguish it from other generic comedies of the era, except that it probably still qualifies as Chase's last best starring role, and arguably the best film he's made since then (or at least significantly contributed to) as well.
On the other hand, Christmas Vacation isn't one of those movies that necessarily ages poorly, although it certainly benefits from the viewer's sense of nostalgia – for the time in which it was released, seeing it during that era, and remembering when Chase was such an undeniably entertaining star. But this was certainly screenwriter Hughes' waning period as a filmmaker, as he advanced quickly and not altogether gracefully into younger and broader fare during this time; and even though this is a more satisfying balance between his trademark mainstream sentimentality and stupider punch lines, it's still lackluster effort, and collectively inferior (in both capacities) to Home Alone, which came just a year later.
What's The Verdict: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation does not hold up, but less in an "it was great and now it sucks" way than it's just representative of the general longevity of many mainstream comedies. Ironically, it's the heart of the film – captured in a surprisingly dexterous performance by the notoriously (and often charmingly) prickly Chevy Chase – that cements any sort of lasting resonance the film has. In which case, as a first-time holiday movie watcher, Christmas Vacation might be just the thing to give you a chuckle on a cold winter night, but for anyone who's already seen it the film feels like you're opening a present whose contents you're already familiar with.