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I don’t want to spend the holidays dead.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
(1989)

(SPOILERS) Chevy Chase gets a bad rap. By which, I don’t mean the canvas of opinion suggesting he really is a bit of a tool in real life is misplaced, as there’s no shortage of witnesses to his antics (head of the pack being probably Bill Murray, whose brother Brian appears here as Clark’s boss). But rather that, during his – relatively brief – heyday, I was a genuine fan of his deadpan delivery in the likes of Caddyshack and Fletch. The National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, even the initial trilogy overseen by John Hughes, are very hit-and-miss affairs, but it’s Chase, with his almost Basil Fawlty-esque ability both to put his foot in it and deliver withering put-downs, who forms their irrepressibly upbeat core.

Hughes made it sound as if this was a bit of a problem (“…those movies have become little more than Chevy Chase vehicles”). He nevertheless returned for this trilogy capper, refurbishing an old short story idea for Clark and ever-devoted wife Ellen – Beverly D’Angelo, less well used here than previously, but still a welcome presence – somehow seeing her husband’s positives in spite it all. So the Griswalds host their extended family for the holidays.

Straight off the bat, this means we go missing Lindsey Buckingham’s signature theme Holiday Road. Compounding this error – though Buckingham was apparently asked for a new tune and demurred – director Jeremiah Chechik, making his feature debut and offered the gig after Chris Columbus bowed out due to friction with Chase, unwisely opts for an ultra-cheap animated credits sequence featuring Santa on his delivery route. It looks tacky, which might suit the Griswald family’s tastes, but the viewers should be given a little more respect, even after European Vacation.

Todd: Where do you think you’re going to put a tree that big?
Clark: Bend over and I’ll show you.

One might argue National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a fairly solid advert for self-isolation over the Yuletide period. But such is the nature of such fare, it’s intended to reaffirm values of togetherness and giving/sharing by its end (you know, precisely the opposite of the current global message/edict). Excepting, that is, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (making her Seinfeld debut the same year) and Nicholas Guest (Christopher’s brother) as Margo and Todd Chester. As a couple of deplorable yuppies, they need no fleshing out beyond the sketchiest of identifiers as appallingly shallow epitomes of 80s values and thus deserving of every suffering inflicted upon them (of course, you might claim Hughes’ Ferris Bueller was also an appallingly shallow epitome of 80s values, but then I have to tell you not to be such a grouch. Or Grinch).

SWAT Commander: That’s pretty low, mister! If I had a rubber hose, I would beat you.

As for Doyle-Murray, Frank Shirley quickly rescinds any Scrooge-like denial of Christmas bonuses. In so doing, possibly at the behest of Warner Bros’ studio honchos, he fosters the lie that corporate types may have a heart, somewhere deep down (notably, Clark works as a food additive designer – essentially poisoning people for a living).

Clark: We’re at the threshold of hell!

The assorted merry slapstick – Clark being hit by a loft ladder is Hughes bread and butter, coming in the same year John Candy got lamped by a bowling ball – and running gags (attempting to turn on the national grid-sapping Christmas lights) are amusing enough. Clark becomes tongue-tied by Nicolette Scorsese’s busty lingerie clerk (“It’s a bit nipply out”). His mother-in-law “wrapped up the damn cat”. Which is promptly electrocuted; I suppose, rather than another example of the movies’ feline vendetta, this represents something of a balancing out, since a dog died in the first movie. There’s a disastrous roast turkey (“It’s just a little dry, It’s fine”). Randy Quaid as cousin-in-law Eddie empties his RV’s “shitter” into a storm drain. The Christmas tree dies. A squirrel invades (I know this is a comedy, but the panic at its presence is, er, nuts). And a SWAT team invades after Eddie takes Shirley hostage.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has become something of a festive classic, but that shouldn’t mask that it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great movie (see also the previous year’s festive classic Scrooged). It’s agreeably scorched earth, however, and it’s interesting to see boss-eyed Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki as the latest incarnations of kids Audrey and Rusty. Both of whom would, of course, go on to big things, even if, for one of them, they would be on the small screen. Notably, this was the biggest hit of the series, but it went straight to video a year later in the UK, retitled National Lampoon’s Winter Holiday. It has since reverted, of course.

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