The four National Lampoon "Vacation" comedies with Chevy Chase saw their ups and downs, as a series of motion pictures and within each film. "Christmas Vacation," from 1989, the third in the sequence, is no exception. As a movie it marks an up turn; within the movie itself, however, it lurches violently between high points and low.
"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" follows the same basic pattern as the original "Vacation" movie, only this time the Griswold family isn't on the road anywhere but settled comfortably down to spend a traditional, old-fashioned Christmas at home. Well, at least Clark, the father, is determined to have an old-fashioned Christmas, and his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) is her usual reluctant, passive self. The kids (newcomers to the series Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki), as always, could care less. From there we get everything going wrong that could go wrong, Clark's typically obsessive behavior, and his inevitable breakdown. If it sounds familiar, the script was again written by John Hughes, who, besides writing the first two "Vacation" films, did "Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Home Alone," and "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles."
The movie is a roller-coaster ride of hilarity, poignancy, vulgarity, and just plain dumbness. One thing to be said about it, though, is that things are never dull, for good or for bad. If the film had maintained a more consistent level of humor throughout, it might have become a perennial Christmas favorite in everybody's household, something like "Christmas Story." As it stands, even with its mild PG-13 rating, it contains enough coarse material to warrant it advisable viewing only for adults or late teens; an irony, really, considering that most of the content that makes it objectionable seems to be aimed primarily at young teens and adolescents. It's a film full of such contradictions, making it hard to review, let alone to recommend.
The story concerns a nice, cozy vacation at home with the Griswolds. Naturally, they're all lunatics. Sorry; dysfunctional, to be politically correct. OK, you're right, lunatics. Clark insists on inviting his parents and in-laws (John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, and Doris Roberts) to Christmas dinner, too, and then their demented Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) shows up unannounced with his brood, and a maniacal squirrel invades the premises, and we get a kidnapping, and then a S.W.A.T team raid, and, as you can see, things get out of hand pretty quickly by the last half of the picture. A shame, really; it starts out so well.
The first half, especially, offers some sidesplitting moments: Clark getting his car stuck under a huge, moving truck; the unfolding of a monster Christmas tree; Clark's flirtations with a pretty department-store clerk; Clark's climbing the roof to put up Christmas lights; the lighting of the house with 25,000 imported Italian twinkle bulbs; and some very funny slapstick sight gags.
In contrast, there are the abuses: The two sets of unfunny parents, supposedly counterpoints for Clark's zaniness but generally just pains in the butt; Clark's hectic, raucous, but ultimately boring sled ride; Cousin Eddie's continual barrage of grossness, culminating in the emptying of his RV's septic tank into the Griswold's gutter; a dog named Snots, for obvious reasons; a pair of snooty, yuppie neighbors; Clark's ultimate breakdown, complete with a seemingly endless string of profanities; and the waste of two great performers, the usually reliable William Hickey and the adorable Mae Questel as Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany. Questel's role is particularly galling because she was the original voice for both Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, and here she gets virtually nothing to do to show off her famous vocal or comic talents.
So, we've got a film that could have been funnier and more family-friendly had it been trimmed of its cruder elements. Yet, true to form, it's a film that also has a surprising number of touching scenes amidst the chaos, like Clark's reminiscing in the attic over childhood home movies, or Clark's talk with Eddie's little girl about the coming of Santa Claus.
I tell you, you'll either ignore the uncouth and clumsy parts, relish the funny bits, and think it's the best of the "Vacation" series; or like me you'll be too annoyed by the parts that don't work to fully appreciate the best the movie has to offer. Well, at least the movie's GOT some funny parts; that's more than could be said about the "European" and "Vegas Vacation" entries, and maybe anything, no matter how small, is better than nothing. For some folks, I understand "Christmas Vacation" is a holiday institution in itself; for others, like me, one time is enough.
A healthy bit rate assures us of deep, vibrant colors and reasonably good definition within the context of an anamorphic widescreen picture measuring about 1.85:1 in ratio. There is a slight grittiness to the image, though, and some areas of the screen appear a little too dark to admit much detail. Nonetheless, with a good print and a clean transfer, the picture is easy to watch.
The sound is reproduced via Dolby Digital two-channel stereo surround, which means you don't get pinpoint accuracy in the rear speakers, but you do get a good left-to-right front-channel spread. I found the audio projected a strong presence as well; a tad bright perhaps with little serious deep bass, but, otherwise, displaying good all-around balance. The surrounds are used mainly for added musical ambience enhancement, which for several of the big Christmas numbers works out well. Most of the time, one simply enjoys the front channels, which open up quite nicely.
Warner Bros. is the studio that has given us such great "special edition" sets as "Casablanca," "Amadeus," and "Singin' in the Rain," but they have some explaining to do calling this one a "Special Edition," as they do in bold type on the front of the snapper case. In fact, there is little that's "special" about it in any way. The disc contains all of one "special" item, an audio commentary with Randy Quaid, Beverly D'Angelo, Johnny Galecki, Miriam Flynn, director Jeremiah Chechik, and producer Matty Simmons. Not even the star, Chevy Chase, participates in it, and for the few minutes I listened, it didn't seem worth spending much time on. Beyond the commentary, there are twenty-nine scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. So, where's the "special"?
"Christmas Vacation" is almost on a par with the first "Vacation" movie, missing it only in terms of the several pitfalls I've mentioned, yet miles ahead of the "European" and "Vegas Vacation" flicks. Still, for me personally the excesses of "Christmas Vacation" outweigh its blessings, so I didn't enjoy it as much this second time I watched it as I did my first time around on cable. Writer John Hughes can be a genius one minute and a washout the next, and within the context of "Christmas Vacation" we see both sides of him prominently displayed.