National Lampoon: A Christmas Vacation (1989), Lookback/Review

A quick lookback at the John Hughes directed National Lampoon: A Christmas Vacation (1989). It's good for a laugh or two or three this time of year.

Directed by: John Hughes

Starring: Chevy Chase

Among the three installments of the National Lampoon series chronicling the Griswolds’ vacations, NATIONAL LAMPOON: A CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) struggles to find a happy medium between good old humor and exaggerated comedy. As usual the result of this imbalance is a movie that feels forced and bloated, with all the charm of a mannequin. The rough words aside, NATIONAL LAMPOON: A CHRISTMAS VACATION nonetheless has a redeeming quality one could call, well, Christmas spirit.

There are few Hollywood husbands who can match the lackluster grit of Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) and yet, you have to admire his delusional optimism and Christmas cheer. His overzealous Christmas spirit is put on full display in the second sequence of NATIONAL LAMPOON: A CHRISTMAS VACATION, as his family sets out to get a Christmas tree; an activity Clark Griswold believes is the essence of an old-fashioned family Christmas. This is, of course, both the aspiration of Clark Griswold and the running joke in the movie; that in spite of this desire to resemble a family with old-fashioned values and love, the Griswolds are far removed from anything even remotely resembling this portrait. What ensues is a lot of, well lampoonery…

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Perhaps the most noteworthy change up in this third installment is the Griswolds are not vacationing away from their suburban home. For NATIONAL LAMPOON: A CHRISTMAS VACATION it’s the in-laws visiting over Christmas. Apart from the normal feelings of pent-up frustration that accompany any such get together, little is done to enhance or add to the drama of the in-laws and cousins. They appear to be simply taking a little Christmas tour through the House of Griswold and aside from a one-liner here and there, the humor contributed by them is minimal. I have a feeling this is more the fault of director John Hughes than the performance of the actors or a function of the script. Hughes appears to have thought that just having the in-laws around was enough. Although Randy Quaid is back as the hilarious “Cousin” Eddie Johnson.

Then there’s Clark Griswold’s family. The lovely Beverly D’Angelo plays Ellen Griswold, longsuffering wife of Clark, with a breezy image of suburban conformity and politeness. The all but fed up kid duo (Johnny Galecki, currently starring in THE BIG BANG THEORY, as Rusty and a young Juliette Lewis as Audrey) give the typical teen angst performance, trying to separate themselves from their parents. And all of this adds up to a family able to ring out a few dry laughs.

NATIONAL LAMPOON: A CHRISTMAS VACATION being what it is, a comedy, there are a couple moments that deserve to be mentioned here. Though one much more than the other and that’s the Christmas lights sequence in which Clark and Rusty seemingly count thousands of light bulbs in preparation for putting them on display. This scene is comedy genius and the obvious highlight of the movie. Chevy Chase seemed to think this too, as his performance in this scene feels all the more human and frail, giving Clark the humorous backbone needed to push the film through. The other moment is the one in which Clark peruses jewelry at the mall, encountering a sexy, flirty sales woman. The dialogue exchanged between these two in the scene is what we’ve come to expect of the National Lampoon legacy.

A far cry from a classic, in my opinion, NATIONAL LAMPOON: A CHRISTMAS VACATION still provides a few good laughs and once again Chevy Chase takes all the liberty in giving life to Clark Griswold, painting a portrait of an overzealous Christmas spirit.  NATIONAL LAMPOON: A CHRISTMAS VACATION definitely lightens the mood if you happen to be having a less than laughter-filled holiday season.