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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (review)

Holiday Woe

What does National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation have in common with It’s a Wonderful Life? Well, some would argue that both are holiday classics, in their own ways. But here’s the real trivia nut’s connection: Frank Capra III — grandson of the famous Wonderful Life director — was the second assistant director of Vacation.

The Griswolds, though, live a long, long way from Bedford Falls.
An exaggerated suburban everydad, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is “the last true family man,” the kind of dad who wants everything to be perfect and fun and all in the family. His best intentions, alas, are forever going awry. Whether it’s the trek deep into the country to cut down the ideal Christmas tree that begins with a game of chicken in the family station wagon with a bunch of rednecks in a pickup truck, or something simple like getting the grumpy Griswold kids excited about spending time with Mom and Dad and grandparents, Clark tries his darnedest only to see his plans never quite live up to his expectations. “No good deed goes unpunished” might be the Griswold family motto, but Clark never lets disaster — which he is invariable in the middle of — get the best of him. Nearly unflappable, Clark may be clueless, but he’s big-hearted.

Sitcomish, slapstick, and sentimental (hardly surprising, seeing as it was written by John Hughes: Planes, Trains and Automobiles), Christmas Vacation is like a pinball machine in which Clark — the constant victim of the movie’s physical-pain variety of humor — bops around his bemused wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo: American History X), the ever-changing (from previous Vacation flicks) Griswold kids — Audrey (a young but already skanky Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (pre-teen dream Johnny Galecki: The Opposite of Sex, I Know What You Did Last Summer, here still a chunky preadolescent) — a snooty yuppie neighbor couple (the wife is played by Julia Louis Dreyfus), and his crude, rude cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and Eddie’s hillbilly family. And like a game of pinball, Christmas Vacation is fast and dazzling and fun while you’re playing but doesn’t linger too long on the brain.

Christmas Vacation never quite reaches the levels of suburban-angst rage that other Vacation movies do, but it does have its moments. Clark’s battle to get the Christmas lights smothering the Griswold house to work has hilarious results — the sequence is a modern comedy classic. And Aunt Bethany’s (the delightful Mae Questel, who eons ago was the voices of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl) senile misrecollections of appropriate songs and prayers for the holiday are pretty darn funny.

“It’s Christmas, and we’re all in misery,” Mom says to her daughter, but that never applies to Clark. If nothing else, Clark Griswold is an example of the Christmas spirit we could all aspire to — if a lot more carefully.


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