MOVIE REVIEW : Griswolds on ‘Vacation’ Again in a Split-Level Comedy

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John Hughes, Hollywood’s resident humorist of the terrors beneath suburbia’s halcyon surfaces, has at them again in the sometimes funny, sometimes tasteless “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (citywide).

Hughes’ typical all-American family of previous Vacations, the Griswolds--headed by Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo)--have only to hunt for Christmas trees or settle down to dinner for something awful to happen. The Christmas turkey dries up. Thousands of house lights refuse to glow. The Christmas tree explodes and sets Grandpa (William Hickey) on fire.

Every ladder Clark climbs up collapses. Every yuletide decoration clunks him on the head. Hordes of relatives keep pouring through the door, a parade of undesirables that includes lushes, addle-brains and a matriarch (Mae Questel) who ties up her cat in Christmas packages and bumbles into the Pledge of Allegiance when called on to say Grace. Worst of all is the sudden arrival of Clark’s belching bucko of a country cousin, indigent Eddie (Randy Quaid), who shows up in an RV with a full chemical toilet and plops himself and his family of four down for the duration, leering and handing over his gift list.


This hideous vision of a suburban Christmas gone totally amok is, typical of Hughes, encased in a sentimental overview--like a Norman Rockwell portrait with a punk rock backbeat, and spiders nibbling through the frame.

In Hughes’ movies, the teen-agers are usually realists, even when they’re romantics, and their parents are usually crazy--maybe because they’d rather be teen-agers. But, here, Chase’s Clark is a mixture: a crazy romantic. There’s such a fiery obsessiveness behind his desire, constantly thwarted, to construct the ideal Christmas that, in a way, he’s like Terry O’Quinn’s homocidal dad in the “Stepfather” movies. Hughes and director Jeremiah Chechik, must know this; they deliberately mix up horror movies and sentimental family comedies in their imagery.

Chevy Chase has not been on a roll lately, and to say that in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” he’s funnier than in his last six movies combined may sound like high praise, until you remember those six movies. “Caddyshack II” alone almost throws them into the “minus” laugh range. But here, he does what he does best: flat-out slapstick and subversive tear-downs of his own smooth image. This sweet, goofball, manic middle-class daddy brings out his sharpest reflexes and he gets good support from D’Angelo, the bulging-eyed slob-in-excelsis Quaid, and from Questel and Hickey as his dottiest relations.

Chechik, making his feature debut is a TV commercial-music video specialist; he’s done the glitzy-romantic “Night belongs to Michelob” spots. And the incongruous elegance of his style--the grandiose frames, loaded with squeaky-clean suburban iconography--makes a good setting for Hughes’ flatulent grotesques.

On the crass side there is some failed “Fish Called Wanda” style vicious animal slapstick, the usual loose multi-sketch Hughes construction and sophomoric badinage and so much bathroom-level humor that it’s no surprise when the sewer blows sky high.

That’s the oddest thing about Hughes’ satiric slant on suburbia: his commingled desire to celebrate it and blow it up. Throughout the film, there’s a suggestion that Clark wants desperately to be free of his family, like the childless swingers next door--which may be why those two are the most horrifically abused people in the entire movie. There’s also a suggestion that, behind this modern, wired-up insanity, there’s an ideal holiday gathering, which the characters are trying, and failing, to reach.


Hughes’ demolitions of middle-class Midwestern suburbia have a weird schizoid intensity, as if he were fighting his way through to dreams he’s rejected, while his satiric knife gets encrusted with chocolate globs. Sometimes sentimentality and sadism are reverse sides of the same coin--which may be why one scene of “Christmas Vacation” (MPAA rated PG-13, despite raw humor and innuendo) fuses imagery from “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” in a single visual gag. At the end, this cruel and foolish suburban Yule twists into a happy, sappy grin. It’s a fusion of Rockwell and Capra with the age of mass murder and media overkill, but it’s really too slick to be soft, too cool to be warm.