NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION – Blu-ray review

There’s a scene near the end of “Vacation” where the Griswold family goes on a roller-coaster ride, and it reminded me of Chevy Chase’s career. When his work has been up, it’s been very, very up (“Saturday Night Live,” “Foul Play,” “Caddyshack,” “Fletch,” “Funny Farm”), and when it’s been down, it’s been very, very down (“European Vacation,” “Oh, Heavenly Dog,” “Cops and Robbersons,” “Vegas Vacation”). Fortunately, “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” from 1983 finds Chase in an up mode, the film being a zany, lighthearted look at numbskull American tourism at its most chaotic.

“Vacation” was the first of four feature films in a series that had its ups and downs. “Vacation” and “Christmas Vacation” were humorous and appealing in their lightweight, dim-witted way, while “European Vacation” and “Vegas Vacation” were gratuitous exercises in vulgar, mindless overkill. We may attribute a part of the success of “Vacation” to its director, Harold Ramis (“Caddyshack,” “Groundhog Day”), and its writer, John Hughes (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”), both of whom were beginning a roll in the early Eighties. Ramis would drop out of the “Vacation” series immediately and Hughes eventually, perhaps why the whole project would in due course run itself into the ground. In the meantime, enjoy this high-definition Blu-ray edition of “Vacation.”

The movie is a compendium of all the clichéd disasters that could possibly befall an American family on a cross-country road trip in the family wagon, the events probably seeming fresher and funnier twenty-seven years ago than they do today through overuse. Heck, many of them were as much clichés then as they are today. In any case, some pretty amusing stuff happens to the Griswolds on their way West.

The film can be awfully dumb at times, yet it’s oddly appealing in one of those guilty-pleasure sort of ways as well, thanks largely to a screenwriter and a director who allow their star, Chase, to deliver his uniquely laid-back style of comedy. Chase is never as funny actually doing things as much as he is reacting to them in that befuddled, deadpan manner of his. The approach works perfectly for Clark W. Griswold, the clueless head of the Chicago Griswold clan. No matter what happens, no matter how badly things are going, Chase’s character remains blithely unconcerned and forever optimistic. At least not until the end of the film, when his character goes completely bananas.

The nuttiness begins when Clark buys a new car for the family’s trip to Walley World in L.A. As Clark says to moviedom’s ultimate straight man, Eugene Levy, playing a used car salesman trying to talk him into a monster station-wagon truckster he didn’t order, “I’m not your ordinary, everyday fool.” No, indeed. Clark is a most extraordinary and unconventional fool. He proves it immediately by buying the car, a vehicle so big and so ugly it’s got not two or four but eight headlights on its massive front grill.

Then the old stereotypes set in, the parents singing merrily along the route while the two kids cringe in embarrassment before shutting it out with headphones. The gag’s probably been done before and has certainly been done since, but never with quite such disarming simplicity. Likewise, the episode about Clark’s falling asleep at the wheel and running amuck through stop lights and parking lots and the gag about a vibrating bed going bonkers are old saws worth seeing again. In addition, Mel Brooks had already done a parody of the shower scene in “Psycho” a few years earlier in “High Anxiety,” and a running bit with a pretty girl (Christie Brinkley in her screen debut) in a red Ferrari 308 GTS looked clearly like a variation on a theme created by George Lucas in “American Graffiti” a decade earlier, yet they work again here.

Beverly D’Angelo plays Clark’s patient and generally understanding wife, Ellen, a part she would play in all four “Vacation” movies. Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron play the children, Rusty and Audrey, for the first and only time. When the first of the sequels came up, they were both occupied with other projects. Clark’s man-to-man talks with his son are particularly endearing; one can never tell who’s the adult and who’s the child. Randy Quaid plays Ellen’s beer-swilling, hayseed cousin, Eddie, the progenitor of a whole brood of country bumpkins. Imogene Coca (of Sid Caesar fame) plays Ellen’s goofy old Aunt Edna, whom relatives coerce Clark into driving to Phoenix.

Then, a slew of famous people show up in cameo roles that make the trip more colorful: veteran stage and screen actor Eddie Bracken is Roy Walley, the founder of the Walley World amusement park (the Disney people would not allow the movie to use its name, understandably); James Keach is a motorcycle cop who follows the Griswold’s station wagon, distressed to see an empty dog collar hanging from the back bumper; John Candy and Frank McRae are Walley World security guards; and I already mentioned Eugene Levy’s car salesman (“You think you hate it now, but wait ’til you drive it”) and Christie Brinkley’s flirtatious vixen.

One more thing: I had not recalled the film moving as leisurely as does. It had been several years since my last seeing it, and I had always remembered it as more frenetic than it actually is. I wonder if the fast-edited pace of today’s comedies hasn’t changed my perspective over the years? Whatever, I enjoyed director Ramis’s measured tempos for the action, allowing one better to savor every catastrophe and more fully to anticipate Clark’s slowly going mad as his obsession to reach Walley World intensifies. Oh, and one other thing: I fear that many of today’s younger viewers will miss the “Chariots of Fire” spoof near the conclusion of the picture. Their loss.

Interestingly, this original “Vacation” is the only one in the series rated R, the others being PG or PG-13. The R rating derives from several brief shots of Ms. D’Angelo topless, several sexually suggestive references and situations, and Chase’s use of several hard profanities. Perhaps the filmmakers initially had no idea how many young people the film would attract and thus restrained themselves in subsequent productions. In any event, the reasons for the R are mild by current standards.

Video:
The Warner engineers present the movie on Blu-ray disc in its theatrical aspect ratio, 1.85:1, using a VC-1 codec and a single-layer BD25. The quality of the transfer looks good, particularly in the way it displays rich, often vibrant colors. Facial tones are sometimes a tad on the dark side but mostly natural, and everything else about the image is more than satisfactory, although not quite state-of-the-art. There is very little noticeable grain except that which was probably inherent to the original print, and there is almost nothing to distract one from the goings on. Delineation is still soft for high definition, but daylight scenes are commendably bright and clean. No complaints.

Audio:
There is very little to say about the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sound. We get monaural playback made a trifle more crystalline via the new lossless processing. Still, it’s plain vanilla, to be sure, with a limited frequency range and dynamic response. Yet it does everything one could expect of it, mainly to convey clear, easily understood dialogue. Sure, a couple of scenes could have benefitted from the use of surround audio effects, but you’ll get no serious complaints from me. As of this writing, it was a twenty-seven-year-old soundtrack, after all.

Extras:
For this Blu-ray edition, the studio left off a few of things they included on their 20th Anniversary DVD. Oh, well…. Probably the most substantial thing remaining is an audio commentary by the Griswold family, which includes reminiscences by Chase, Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, producer Matty Simmons, and director Harold Ramis. Then, there is an extremely brief introduction by Chevy Chase, Quaid, and Simmons, mostly Chase. In fact, I don’t know that Quaid says a thing; he just sits there with the others on a couch, smiling vacantly. Maybe that was part of the joke. Beyond this, there are thirty-three scene selections; English, French, German, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Spanish, Norwegian, and other subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
Now before I go away, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is a cinematic masterpiece or a major comedy classic; I don’t think it is. In truth, upon revisiting the film again on Blu-ray, it was like seeing an old friend after a few years absence and not finding him nearly so witty or so charming as remembered. Still, “Vacation” is an enjoyable trifle and showcases Chase’s low-key comic talents as well as anything else he’s done. “Vacation” may not be a masterwork, but it is a pleasant trip.

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