REVIEW: “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989)

Fans of the “Vacation” films have followed the Griswold family on a cross-country vacation, a European vacation, and even a Las Vegas vacation. “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” is arguably the funniest of the “Vacation” movies and focuses on their attempt at a “good old-fashioned family Christmas”. Of course anyone familiar with the Griswolds knows this is easier said than done, especially with the well-meaning but blundering patriarch Clark at the helm. For audiences the results are pretty hilarious.

Chevy Chase reprises his role as Clark Griswold. He’s still not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but a he’s good husband and father. As mentioned, this time he sets out to have a traditional family Christmas. That includes venturing out in the wild to find a real Christmas tree, aggressively decorating the outside of his house with Christmas lights, and inviting his parents and in-laws to his home for the holidays. Naturally Clark’s lovable ineptitude ensures that none of his ideas work out as planned, and that’s a big part of the fun.

Beverly D’Angelo returns as Clark’s ever-patient and supportive wife Ellen who (as in every “Vacation” movie) perfectly understands her husband’s propensity for overdoing things. She’s the sometimes calming voice of reason and a perfect complement to her nutty husband. Chase and D’Angelo have always had a terrific chemistry which has always been a strength in every “Vacation” movie.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Aside from Clark and Ellen, the movie is filled with an assortment of great and infinitely quotable characters. This time around Juliette Lewis plays their daughter Audrey while Johnny Galecki plays their son Rusty. E.G. Marshall steals several scenes as Clark’s cantankerous father-in-law, Art. Doris Roberts is really good as Ellen’s boozy mother, as is John Randolph as Clark’s supportive father. There’s also William Hickey as the stogie-chomping Uncle Lewis and Mae Questel as the near-senile Aunt Bethany. They arrive later in the film but bring some big laughs with them. And how can I not mention Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the Griswolds’ snooty next-door neighbors.

But the real stand-out is Randy Quaid as cousin Eddie, a character who has earned his pop-culture renown. He and his family show up to the Griswold home uninvited, and that’s when things really turn wacky. Eddie is a dimwitted bum and unashamed moocher, but he’s family nonetheless. Everything from his wardrobe to his mannerisms firmly fit into the ‘crazy uncle’ mold. And then Quaid throws in some zany touches all his own. It’s safe to say he doesn’t just steal scenes, he steals the movie.

Like the other films in the “series”, Clark eventually loses his mind and things go from bad to worse as every one of his good intentions blow up in his face. And we get to shamelessly laugh all the way through. At the same time, the ‘National Lampoon’ tag means you’re going to get innuendo and a handful of gags risqué enough to keep this from being what some will consider “family friendly”. But its laughs are undeniable and the script (written by the late, great John Hughes) hits nearly every note.

“Christmas Vacation” has so many scenes and just as many lines that you just can’t forget. Director Jeremiah Chechik has a blast taking so many of the familiar family and Christmas traditions and accentuating them in a way that only the Griswolds could. It’s hard to believe that “Christmas Vacation” is already 33 years old. Yet during that time the film has evolved into a perennial holiday classic. Who would’ve thought?