The 1980s, the decade in which Chevy Chase could do no wrong. It was also the decade that spawned the National Lampoon’s Vacation series of movies, where the Griswold family enjoy a seasonal vacation and bad things just kind of… happen. And not just occasionally – with frequent abandon. He’s not as blatantly accident prone as an Inspector Clouseau, but bad things always seem to happen where Clark Griswold is involved. Some of it is his own doing – trying to overtake a slow moving lorry in icy conditions is never going to end well, but for the most part he is a very unfortunate victim of circumstance.
Unlike the prevalence in the modern day for comedies to focus on gross-out humour and childish jokes focused on body functions, Christmas Vacation takes its cues from cinema’s slapstick past whilst bringing things up to date with that slightly anarchic 80s edge. A moderately amusing reference to the Friday The 13th series and a close reference to a key swimming pool-related scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High place this firmly in the 80s comedy canon, but if you’re well versed in your knowledge of cinema then you won’t be left wondering what all the fuss is about when other people laugh at those moments.
Christmas Vacation throws together all of the traditional family strife that afflicts people over the festive season. Annoying relatives, stresses over the decorations, concerns about the Christmas meal. Despite the frequent moments of amusement the script feels very much like an array of vignettes stitched together to form a loose narrative. There isn’t the family strife as seen in John Hughes’ Home Alone, and you can’t help wondering if it would have been better had they focused more on the inevitable frustrations of having more than 10 people living together under one roof over the Christmas period. But then, it’s not as if the Griswold’s home is all that small – a classic example of the carefree lifestyle of middle America.
Eagle eyed fans may notice not only a young Juliette Lewis as daughter Audrey, but The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki also appears as son Rusty. More concerning is the appearance of Randy Quaid as cousin Eddie, a man who lives in a camper van with his white trash family. He’s a force of nature, one not averse to kidnapping Clark’s grumpy boss because he seemingly has no concept of the law or boundaries. In the “exasperated looks” category, Beverly D’Angelo wins by a clear margin as Clark’s long-suffering wife Ellen. She is an incredibly understanding person and totally at odds with the expected “shrieking banshee” that most movie wives are stereotyped as.
It’s not Chase’s best film from the decade – that accolade should be bestowed on Fletch or, at a stretch, The Three Amigos – but it’s a perfectly apt Christmas movie even if Clark’s over-reliance on his Christmas bonus is perhaps a little self-centred. Still, it has its fair share of laughs and despite any misgivings about the story structure it’s a film that can easily be enjoyed during the festive period with no brain power required.