MOTW: "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" Review

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

MOTW: "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" Review

Rating: PG-13
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: December 1, 1989
Directed by: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Genre: Comedy

For anyone who has ever needed a reminder that your family may not be the oddest on the block or that your Christmas celebration may actually be tame compared to some, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is the answer. The third of the National Lampoon movies centered on Clark Griswold and his family, this installment shows that although the holidays may be rough on many families, there's no reason they can't be hilarious as well.

Moviegoers who saw "National Lampoon's Vacation" or "National Lampoon's European Vacation," can imagine all too well how much trouble can brew from the Griswolds' own backyard, and brew it does—in spades. From causing a blackout over the entire city as the result of a million faultily wired Christmas lights to a kidnapping committed in revenge for a less-than-spectacular Christmas bonus, trouble flows from Clark Griswold's life in volumes rarely seen outside of volcanic explosions. Toward the film's end, an explosion worthy of a volcano pops up to top off the movie's hilarious antics.

Along the way, the audience of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" gets the opportunity to fall in love with Clark and Ellen Griswold all over again—or perhaps for the first time. Played by Chevy Chase and Barbara D'Angelo, this pair illustrates the perfectly balanced couple: one sane and skeptical, the other off his rockers. With each platitude from his wife, Clark's spirit sinks just a little, but his resolve to have the best holiday ever with his family is undeterred. With a mixture of in-laws, an abundance of heart, and enough laughs to fuel a collection of movies, it's not hard to understand why this film has become a comedic holiday favorite. It may not bring the tears of an "It's A Wonderful Life" or a "Miracle on 34th Street," but sometimes the simple reminder that no one gets the holidays perfect is what's needed to make a movie memorable.

Chevy Chase delivers a solid performance, meshed well, as always, with his perennial on-screen wife Barbara D'Angelo. Unfortunately, this movie probably marked the summit of Chase's career. Although his situational comedy genius and timing is well appreciated in an off-the-wall movie such as this one, it didn't translate well to future success. Chase continues to garner roles to this day in films large and small, but he hit his peak in the 80s with the National Lampoon series. Looking back, even a moderate fan would be hard-pressed to remember his performances in roles outside of National Lampoon or Caddyshack. D'Angelo, a perfect straight man to Chase's comedy flair, seems to have met the same fate over time. Although she went on to play many other roles and even landed a recurring role on TV's "Law and Order: SVU," she remains best known as Clark's wife and sidekick.

Clark and Ellen's hapless children, played by future stars Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki, also deliver solid, if not stellar, performances. All three—D'Angelo, Lewis and Galecki—seem to fade, as any other actor would, when playing opposite Chevy Chase in a comedy like this one. Additionally, it's hard to connect with the children's characters, since different actors are cast in the roles in each of the National Lampoon films.

Actor Randy Quaid adds a surprising bit of hilarity with his character Eddie, the hard-to-love-yet-harder-to-hate husband of Ellen's cousin Catherine. In fact, Eddie and Catherine's arrival at the family Christmas spectacular with their own kids in tow is the element that sends this movie right over the top. That Clark has to provide Christmas magic for Eddie's kids on top of his own leads to his transformation from genial bumbling dad to hardcore kidnapping nut. And this is one of the few slapstick comedies that can withstand that type of plot addition.

All in all, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is a fun holiday film that achieved a cult following nearly instantly after its release. The movie continues to grab good ratings each year during its annual appearance in the holiday movie lineup on cable. Its sometimes-forced humor is countered by a surprising sentimental streak that ends up reminding both the characters and the audience that there's more to the holidays than bright lights and fancy presents. Writer John Hughes leaves his typical stamp on the title with the mostly happy ending typical of his National Lampoon and Brat Pack titles, and director Jeremiah Chechik got to chalk up his first major directing credit in inimitable Clark Griswold style.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars