For the eighth film of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . not only one of the funniest Christmas films ever made but one of the funniest movies ever. Period.
I remember watching it with my (at the time) girlfriend who absolutely hated it. I was sat there chortling, snorting and howling like an idiot, whilst she was sat beside me, stony-faced and probably wondering what the hell I was laughing at. Saying that, she didn’t like the Farrelly Brothers’ hilarious Dumb and Dumber (1994) or Clint Eastwood’s overlooked Civil War Gothic drama The Beguiled (1971) or Stanley Kubrick’s emotionally draining Paths of Glory (1957) or even his even better Dr Strangelove (1964) or Quentin Tarantino’s exhilarating and brilliantly constructed Pulp Fiction, (1994) which really proves that – where films are concerned – she had no taste whatsoever.
The epithet National Lampoon used before the main title of a movie is generally an indication that you are about to watch a sub-standard so-called comedy that’s usually a string of weak or non-existent jokes strung together to form a rudimentary storyline that is neither interesting or funny. As far as I’m aware there are only three National Lampoon films that are any good – one is John Landis’s rather marvellous Animal House (1978), the second is Harold Ramis’s original Vacation (1983) and the third is Christmas Vacation (1989) directed by Jeremiah S.. Chechick, which is easily the funniest of the National Lampoon Vacation series.
Just for the record please avoid the other two Vacation films, European and Vegas, neither of which is funny in the slightest. Such is the stigma of being associated with the unfunniness of National Lampoon that the movie website IMDB list National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation merely as Christmas Vacation. And before you say anything I know that unfunniness is not a real word. I just made it up. And what's wrong with that? If Shakespeare could do it so can I.
Christmas Vacation, the third in National Lampoon's Vacation series, was scripted by John Hughes and for those of you who are struggling to remember why you remember the name John Hughes, then let me remind you. He was responsible for writing some of the most successful comedies of the 80s and 90s – The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Uncle Buck (1989), Home Alone (1990), Beethoven (1992), the remake of Miracle on 34th Street (1994) and the outstanding (and in my opinion the best comedy of the 1980s) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
Christmas Vacation charts Clark Griswold and his family’s Christmas celebrations, where nothing goes right – the Christmas tree that was illegally chopped down catches fire and its replacement is home to a very angry squirrel, freeloading, hillbilly relatives in mobile homes with defective toilets turn up, the annual bonus is not what was expected and the cat gets fried by dodgy Christmas tree lights. What’s so good about this film is that this is the kind of terrible Christmas that could happen to anyone – probably not as extreme as this one – but definitely within the realms of possibility.
It’s also one of the few comedies that never lets up – from Chevy Chase driving his car under a forty ton truck at the beginning to the SWAT team crashing into his living room at the end – and I remember crying with laughter and gasping for air the first time I saw it. Chevy Chase as the eternally optimistic Clark – who just wants the best for himself and his family, but whose plans always seem doomed to failure – is brilliant in probably his last really great comic performance before his career stalled for twenty years, only for him to re-emerge in 2009 to great critical acclaim – and with a cast of young actors – in the quirky and genuinely funny US television comedy series Community.
Randy (not quite so good looking as his brother Dennis) Quaid, a much admired and versatile actor, is Cousin Eddie, Clark’s hick, sponging brother-in-law whose weird kids still sleep on rubber sheets. When he arrives at Clark’s house in his RV with his wife, two kids and dog he asks Clark if he’s surprised. “Surprised?” replies Clark, “I couldn’t be more surprised if I woke up tomorrow morning with my head sewn to the carpet.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Nicholas Guest play Clark’s snooty neighbours, Margo and Todd, absolutely straight. There’s a great scene where they come home to find their expensive hi-fi system destroyed. The complicated way it ended up like that is a thing of wonder to behold and also extremely funny.
There is a terrific supporting cast – Beverly D’Angelo as Clark’s long suffering wife, Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki (now in the hugely successful TV series The Big Bang Theory) as the kids, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall as the in-laws, and veteran actors William Hickey and Mae Questel (the original Betty Boop) as a senile old uncle and aunt. There’s also Brian Doyle-Murray as Clark’s boss Frank Shirley. Brian Doyle-Murray should be familiar to fans of Groundhog Day (1993) in which he played Buster, alongside the great Bill Murray, who just happens to be his brother.
Christmas Vacation is one of those rare things – a film that was advertised as a Christmas comedy that is actually not just funny but hilarious for almost its entire length. So do yourself a favour – settle down and let the Griswold family lead you through the most disastrous Christmas of their lives.