Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

Rated PG-13

Score: 4 out of 5

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is the ultimate film to send off a terrible year with: an old-fashioned laugh riot that doesn't make you think, but definitely makes you smile. The third film in the Vacation franchise, this movie tells the tale of one man's quest to put together a perfect Christmas for his family, only for life to kick him in the balls at every turn -- and yet, in the end, it all turns out fine. Its big laughs and holiday spirit more than make up for whatever faults it may have, and while it is fairly slight overall, it's still a joyous, over-the-top Christmas comedy.

Unlike the last two films, in this one the Griswold family isn't going on a vacation, but rather, their house is itself the destination. Parents Clark and Ellen (Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo) are inviting their respective parents over to stay through Christmas, much to the "delight" of their children Rusty and Audrey (Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis). Ellen's good-ol'-boy cousin-in-law Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his family also show up, having had to sell their farm and move into a beat-up RV after getting scammed out of their money by a crooked televangelist. Hijinks ensue for 97 minutes as the Griswolds try to manage their bickering extended family, their quest for the perfect live tree, their attempt to hook up Christmas lights, their asshole yuppie neighbors Todd and Margo (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Clark's long wait for his holiday bonus check, and more. Structurally, it's more a series of sketches loosely organized around the buildup to Christmas than anything, but they all have one thing in common: each one pushes Clark that much closer to the edge, in that classic Vacation formula, before he finally learns to appreciate what he has in the form of his family. If you've seen the original 1978 film (or the reboot from last year), you know the formula well. This is basically a lighter, softer, more holly-jolly version of that, swapping the bitter edge, F-bombs, and jokes about death and hard living for Christmas spirit and earnestness while still leaving in enough blue humor to get a PG-13 rating.

The gags are hysterical. Without them, there wouldn't be a whole lot to this film, and fortunately, John Hughes has just as much fun mining humor out of the silliness of the season as he did before with family road trips. Everybody's had a turkey that was overcooked, had to put up with annoying relatives, searched for the right gift, and tried to cover the house in lights and examine every bulb to make sure that a single blown one won't cause the whole circuit to not turn on. (Okay, that last one is mostly obsolete in 2016, where we have light chains that skip burnt-out bulbs, but I remember being a kid in the '90s, back when the power to the lights ran through every bulb.) If anything, the humor in this film is probably more universal than in the original Vacation, as while a road trip isn't the most common sort of vacation these days, virtually everybody's celebrated either Christmas or one of the other holidays in the season (Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, New Year's), and taken part in this sort of family get-together. The whole cast playing the Griswold clan is down for everything thrown at them, most of all Chevy Chase as the would-be patriarch who tries, and increasingly fails, to keep his head on his shoulders in the face of constant indignity. Most of the supporting characters are pretty two-dimensional, but all of them get their moments, especially Beverly D'Angelo and Randy Quaid as two people who you can't believe are related. And honestly, it's no wonder Julia Louis-Dreyfus went on to be a star, because she stole the show every time she and her on-screen husband had to suffer from the Griswolds' antics.

The Bottom Line:

Another short review, so as to avoid spoiling the best jokes. It's a very entertaining holiday comedy, nothing more, nothing less, and great fun to throw on at any point during the season or even in other parts of the year.

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