National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) – Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik – Starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, William Hickey, Mae Questel, Miriam Flynn, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Brian Doyle Murray.
I miss John Hughes.
For all of the jokes and all of the inappropriateness of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION, what makes this a fantastic movie is the scene where Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) gets trapped in the attic while the rest of the extended family goes off Christmas shopping. Digging through old chests to find clothes to keep him warm, Clark puts on some of his mother’s furs and gloves when he discovers old 8 MM reels of Christmas holidays from his youth. Despite being trapped in the attic, despite the cold, Clark watches the reels and becomes lost in the memories. It’s clear that Clark desires an idealized holiday, but even in these old reels we don’t see it, and this makes Clark an incredibly tragic, rather than simply nostalgic, character. Clark isn’t simply trying to recapture his youth in his quest for the perfect Christmas – he’s still trying to have a perfect Christmas, and he believes – he really believes – that now that it’s HIS Christmas, that he’s the breadwinner, that everyone is coming to his house, that he’s in charge – he can make this happen.
But he can’t, and his wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) knows it. “Sparky,” as she affectionately calls her husband, has a tendency to build up his expectations to such a level that no one can live up to them. Ellen is trying to protect her husband from himself, but she knows that he’s going to go through with everything and instead of stomping on his optimism, she steps back and lets him go for it – but she’s always ready to step in and offer him some comfort when he needs it.
The on-screen chemistry between Chase and D’Angelo is fascinating to watch, because they’re amazing together without really being amazing together. Theirs is a very subtle relationship, with Clark sometimes seemingly oblivious to just how great his wife is to him, and for him. Clark repeatedly gets lost in the quest for the perfect moment as Ellen subtly stands by to prop him up.
And that’s the lesson Clark learns in CHRISTMAS VACATION – forget the postcard moments and forget trying to make reality live up to your lofty expectations and just enjoy the moments for what they are. Families are crazy but they’re yours, so enjoy them while you can, even if they do belittle your attempts at installing 25,000 twinkling Christmas lights on your house, show up unexpectedly and dump their RV’s toxic sewage into the storm drain in front of your house, kidnap your boss, trap you in the attic, burn down your tree, and guilt you into buying Christmas gifts for your kids because you haven’t worked in seven years.
The main plot sees Clark’s parents (John Randolph, Diane Ladd) and Ellen’s parents Art and Frances (E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts) coming to Clark’s house for Christmas. The move forces the Griswold children, Rusty and Audrey (played this time around by Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis), to move into the same room and inexplicably share a bed. Unlike the increasingly insipid Focker movies, CHRISTMAS VACATION never stops being Clark’s movie, yet all of the parents have their moments. Clark’s dad displays some of the same overly-positive traits that Clark does, but he’s also more realistic, trying to let Clark down easy that the attempt at a perfect Christmas has turned into an unmitigated disaster. Clark’s mom is this steadying influence in the background, and you can see some of the same quiet, supportive qualities in her that you see in Ellen. Ellen’s mom and dad are the much more sarcastic couple, with E.G. Marshall getting off some subtly vicious one-liners.
When Clark’s attempt to light the house fails, Art sarcastically deadpans, “Beautiful, Clark,” and Frances caustically jibes, “Talk about pissing your money away. I hope you kids see what a silly waste of resources this was.” Audrey lovingly comes to her father’s defense: “He worked really hard, Grandma.” Art reminds her, “So do washing machines.”
Or his best line of the movie; after Clark has managed to get the Christmas lights working (thanks to Ellen unknowingly flipping the right switch; Clark plays no role in getting them to finally turn on), Art reminds him, “They’re not twinkling.”
“I know that, Art,” Clark replies, defeat creeping into his voice.
This attitudinal conflict lies at the heart of CHRISTMAS VACATION; Clark is presented as a sort of Last Man Standing when it comes to believing in Christmas (one of his co-workers refers to him as “the last family man”), confronted on all sides by those who’ve lost the spirit of the season. John Hughes, at heart, is an optimist swimming in a pessimistic world, and Clark personifies this to the nth degree. It’s fitting that his negativity builds like a pressure cooker throughout the film, finally being set off when his Christmas bonus gets delivered and instead of a check, it’s an enrollment in the Jelly of the Month Club. There’s a few outbursts along the way, of course, but they’re small and self-contained. Whenever things turn for the better, Clark is instantly willing to let all bygones be bygones, embracing anyone and everyone in his attempt to push the perfect Christmas through.
Splendidly, CHRISTMAS VACATION doesn’t force any idyllic finish – Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) kidnaps Clark’s boss (Brian Doyle Murray), who realizes what a cheap prick he was by refusing to give out Christmas bonuses, the SWAT teams breaks into the house, Uncle Lewis lights a stogie, igniting the toxic sewage and blasting a plastic Santa Claus into the sky as Aunt Bethany leads them in a chorus of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
It’s an imperfectly perfect ending to a film about an imperfectly perfect holiday. NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION is a splendid movie, and serves as an antithesis, of sorts, to Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Where the Grinch believes the worst about Christmas, Clark believes the best, yet both are surrounded by people who believe the opposite of their own yuletide attitudes; in the end, Christmas brings both communities together.
Be sure to check out the Holiday Review Index for all the Holiday-themed reviews to be found at Atomic Anxiety.