There's a scene near the end of "Vacation" where the Griswold family goes on a roller-coaster ride that 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 movies 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. Part of the success of "Vacation" may be attributed 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 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of "Vacation" with its newly remastered transfer and small bundle of extras.
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 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, a parody of the shower scene in "Psycho" had been done by Mel Brooks 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 was clearly a variation on a theme created by George Lucas in "American Graffiti" a decade earlier, but they also work again.
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. Both were occupied with other projects when the first of the sequels came up. 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 they are coerced into driving to Phoenix. Plus 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 is a Walley World security guard; and I already mentioned Eugene Levy's car salesman ("You think you hate it now, but wait till 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 a long time 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 tempo for the action, allowing one to better savor every catastrophe and to more fully anticipate Clark's slowly going mad as his obsession to reach Walley World intensifies. Oh, and one other thing: I fear the "Chariots of Fire" spoof near the conclusion of the picture will be lost on many of today's younger viewers. Oh, well; their loss.
Interestingly, this original "Vacation" is the only one in the series to be 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 would be attracted to the film and thus restrained themselves in subsequent productions. In any event, the reasons for the R are mild by current standards.
The picture quality in this new digital transfer is quite good, particularly in the way it displays its rich, reasonably vibrant colors. The ordinary 1.85:1 anamorphic screen size is nothing to brag about, and facial tones are a bit on the dark side most of the time, but everything else about the image is more than satisfactory, although not state-of-the-art. There is very little noticeable grain, very few jittery lines, almost nothing to distract one from the goings on. Delineation is a tad soft, perhaps, but daylight scenes are commendably bright and clean. No complaints.
There is almost nothing to report on here. The sound is reproduced just as it was in theaters of twenty years before, in a straight monaural, here rendered possibly more crystalline via Dolby Digital processing. It's plain vanilla, to be sure, with limited frequency and dynamic ranges, yet it does everything one could expect of it, mainly conveying clear, easily understood dialogue. Sure, a couple of scenes could have benefitted from the use of surround audio effects, but, again, you'll get no serious complaints from me.
For a 20th Anniversary Special Edition, there really aren't all that many special features on the disc. Probably the most substantial is the audio commentary with the Griswold family, which includes reminiscences by Chase, Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, producer Matty Simmons, and director Harold Ramis. Then, there are some all-new and entirely too brief introductions 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. The main bonus item, though, is a series of featurettes called the "Family Truckster," which includes excerpts of the film introduced and narrated by cast members. Christie Brinkley gets a few words in here, too. After that are thirty-three scene selections, a cast and crew listing, and a theatrical trailer. Spoken languages and subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Now before I go, 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 after many years, it was like seeing an old friend again after a long 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 has done. "Vacation" may not be a comic masterwork, but it is a pleasant trip.