Movie review: ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’

cvFrom the first time I saw it (first run, in a theater in December 1989), I knew that “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” would be the best Christmas film I would ever see. I would come to appreciate “A Christmas Story” as the classic it is only after several viewings and I would enjoy others, but none can compare to “Christmas Vacation.” It is simply perfect (although the current Comcast grid gives it a measly two stars – I wonder which fool put that one up there) and there isn’t one thing that could be changed to make it a better Christmas movie. Our daughter pointed up recently that the legendary John Hughes wrote “Christmas Vacation.” I had forgotten that. No wonder it is so good (and check out its comedy roots in my review below).

‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’
(1989; 97 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Jeremiah Chechik and starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid and Johnny Galecki; can be found weekly or more often at Christmastime on a variety cable movie channels)

HERE’S THE REAL ‘JOY TO THE WORLD’

I didn’t always like “A Christmas Story.” It came out in 1983 and was OK, but I thought, “Ho-hum, just another Christmas movie.” Those were saccharine and predicable and they didn’t score points with me. However, just as I would with watching “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” a few extra viewings could lift the fog and make it clear that it was a classic. No so with “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” I knew it was a classic from the time the opening credits rolled when I saw it in the theater and I have grabbed it on every medium since and watch it multiple times throughout each Christmas season.

(CLICK HERE FOR ALL MY MOVIE REVIEWS)

Christmas Vacation” has it all: a wonderful story (perfectly written for the screen by John Hughes – see a full explanation of this later), a great headlining cast; a very competent and special supporting cast; and just all the little things that make a great holiday film. Check my blog here on Christmas Day for an overview of my take on Christmas films. (Update: click here for link)

The story of “Christmas Vacation” is simple: “Clark Griswold,” played by Chevy Chase, is always the happiest at the Christmas season and wants the whole family to come to his house for the holiday. So he and his wife, “Ellen Griswold” played by Beverly D’Angelo, invite both sets of parents over and the Christmas season is off and spluttering with karma, fate and everyone’s foibles coming out in full-force in some twisted attempt to thwart Chase’s good intentions to have the perfect holiday. He even gets screwed by his company on his Christmas bonus.

From cutting down their own tree (forgetting a saw) to problems with the Christmas light to the tree drying out, the Griswolds stagger head-first into every door they have to open for the season. Their family members are quarrelsome, critical and demanding; the kids are sullen; and the neighbors are yuppie scum. The funniest family member, cousin “Edward ‘Eddie’ Johnson” played by Randy Quaid, shows up unannounced (and uninvited) and quickly stakes claim to again being the quirkiest of them all (we were introduced to him in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” … “Christmas Vacation” is its second sequel).

Yet, Chase perseveres and the Christmas spirit prevails and everyone has a wonderfully merry Christmas at the end. Of course they’re all bruised from the bumpy ride, but, hey, who’s complaining now?

Here’s a look at the principal cast members:

  • Chase is absolutely pitch-perfect in the role of “Clark Griswold.” He’s the right age; has the correct demeanor; and has a slightly dark side that peeks out on occasion, but in a humorous way. Chase conveys the part well and simply becomes the overzealous lover of Christmas. He was also in the golf comedy classic “Caddyshack” as well as “Foul Play” (click here for my review), “Seems Like Old Times” (click here for my review), “Fletch” (click here for my review) and I’ll only mention one stinker: “Dirty Work” with Norm MacDonald – click here for my review.
  • D’Angelo holds her own easily with Chase and doesn’t have to rely on any R-rated shower scenes to make an impression here like she did in “Vacation.” She’s good at making every attempt to be the balance to Chase’s energy for the holiday and pretty much has to clean-up each mess after him (she even solves the Christmas light problems). D’Angelo has also been in “Hair” and “American History X.”
  • Oscar nominee Quaid is still quasi-sleazy and looking to mooch off the family. He does this so well I don’t believe he was welcome at his real family’s celebration that holiday season. Quaid has also done good work in “The Long Riders” (click here for my review), his nominated role in “The Last Detail” with Jack Nicholson and “Independence Day.”
  • Johnny Galecki, currently on top of the TV world with his megahit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” does OK work here as son “Rusty ‘Russ’ Griswold,” but doesn’t distinguish himself. He doesn’t disappoint, but he doesn’t make his character outstanding, either. Galecki also did “In Time.”
  • Juliette Lewis was daughter “Audrey Griswold” and while better than the two actresses who played the role in the first two films, isn’t very special here. She’s OK – even solid – but does her best as being arrogant and then turning to defend Chase when he’s criticized by one of the adults. She has also been in “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “Natural Born Killers.”
  • Veteran actor E.G. Marshall plays “Arthur ‘Art’ Smith,” who is Chase’s father-in-law. Marshall does a good job as the crusty, critical family member who likes talking about his various ailments. Marshall was also in “The Caine Mutiny” as the prosecutor (click here for my review) and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (click here for my review).
  • John Randolph plays “Clark Griswold Sr.” and, of course, is Chase’s father. He’s calm, collected and very supportive of his son. He’s the role model for Chase, except he doesn’t have the bad luck. Randolph was in “Serpico,” “Prizzi’s Honor” (click here for my review) and “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review).
  • Doris Roberts, most famous as “Marie” on TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” is mother-in-law “Frances Smith” and has a bit of drinking problem. Roberts does her usual great job with a small role. While she doesn’t truly sparkle here, she works with what little she has and makes it better. Roberts went way out of character in the doper classic “Grandma’s Boy” and has also been in TV’s “Remington Steele.” She is a five-time Primetime Emmy winner.
  • Brian Doyle-Murray plays Chase’s boss “Frank Shirley” and he does a great job being the uptight executive who cancels the company’s Christmas bonuses. He runs afoul of Quaid and is also perfect being the victim. He was the caddy supervisor in “Caddyshack” and has also been in “Groundhog Day.”
  • The yuppies next door are played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as “Margo and Todd Chester.” They are narcissistic fools who turn their nose up at Christmas. Chase has a great one-liner for them, shoots a javelin of ice into their stereo and finally knocks a tree through their window. Of course Louis-Dreyfus is best known for TV’s “Seinfeld” while Guest was in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
  • Finally, I’ll mention that Nicolette Scorsese plays “Mary,” who is a counter person that Chase makes embarrassing comments to while shopping (she’s wearing the thong underwear). Scorsese also is the girl taking off her bathing suit at Chase’s fantasy pool. She was also in “Boxing Helena.”

Both “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Christmas Vacation” are adapted for the screen by Hughes from short stories he wrote for the “National Lampoon” humor magazine. For those who were children in the late 1950s, the stories are priceless mirrors and something we can all relate to. You can click here to read Hughes’ original short story titledChristmas ’59.” The Christmas story was the sequel short story to his original “Vacation ’58” short (click here to read it). Unlike the short story, the movie “Vacation” doesn’t mention that All-American founder of the mouse empire (they didn’t under threat of litigation by that company).

Although a remake of “Vacation” is slated for 2015 with Anthony Michael Hall reprising his role a “Rusty Griswold” from the first movie, I believe there’s a great remake possible of “Christmas Vacation.” Galecki can star as a grown up “Rusty” and hosting Christmas at his house. It would work! (NOTE: The “Vacation” remake came out and DID NOT star Hall. It stars Ed Helms as “Rusty Griswold.” — note added on Aug. 18, 2015 — I still believe that Galecki could do a great “Christmas” remake …)

Christmas Vacation” was the 15th ranked film at the domestic box office in 1989 with $71.3 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a $25 million budget, according to Wiki. It edged out “Turner & Hooch” for 15th place and the No. 1 film of the year was “Batman” with $251.1 million. Other films I liked that year included “Parenthood” (ninth with $100 million – click here for my review) and “Uncle Buck” (18th with $66.7 million – click here for my review).

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014.
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