National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Written by John Hughes
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik
This might be my favorite Christmas movie of all time, but it might not. I have watched Christmas Vacation probably over two dozen times, and while I was a child and teenager, I loved the film, my views have become more complicated as an adult. I still think it is hilariously funny, a perfect ending to John Hughes’s tenure on the series. They tried to keep squeezing gold out of the series in later films, which were embarrassingly terrible. I’ve noticed in recent viewings that Christmas Vacation is a total mess, not sure if it wants to be sentimental or cynical about the holiday.
Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is dead set on having a big family Christmas at his home in the Chicago suburbs. He drags his wife (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids (Juliette Lewis & Johnny Galecki) out to the woods to harvest a ridiculously colossal tree and decides to cover his house in thousands of lights that will send his electric bill into the stratosphere. To add even more trouble to the holiday season, Clark has invited his parents and his in-laws to come to spend the week of Christmas at his house. Complicating that situation is the unexpected arrival of Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), his wife Catherine, and kids Rocky & Ruby Sue. Clark also has to deal with uptight yuppie neighbors who find his holiday spirit something to mock and a cold boss who doesn’t seem to be in a very giving mood this year.
Christmas Vacation is a collection of amusing bits. It is not a single cohesive storyline or even character arc for Clark. It definitely seems like Hughes wrote this as a series of comedic moments all centered around the holidays. The closest we get to a storyline is Clark’s growing anxiety over the down payment he’s made on an inground pool and the delayed arrival of his Christmas bonus. Scenes are set up like skits or jokes, establishing the location and who is there and then allowing all manner of hilarious and silly things to occur. Many of these involve Cousin Eddie once he arrives on the scene, and it is a reminder that despite his current descent into complete schizophrenia, Randy Quaid was an excellent comedic actor, especially in this role.
As a kid, this was a film quoted by my siblings and me frequently, and to this day, it comes up by chance pretty often. This is because of the beautiful assembly of actors Hughes brought to the picture. John Randolph and Diane Ladd play Clark’s parents with E.G. Marshall & Doris Roberts playing the in-laws. They are so great with the supporting roles they are given and sometimes manage to steal the show. On Christmas Eve, we see the arrival of Great-Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop) and her husband Lewis (William Hickey), and in their instance, they ultimately run away with the movie in the third act. This is a perfect example of a substantial ensemble comedy where the veteran actors know just where they fit in the overall structure and play to support the other actors.
I think the problems with Christmas Vacation come down to it being so overpacked that it doesn’t use its best players to their fullest. All those relatives mentioned above don’t have enough scenes and feel like a wildly missed opportunity. I think cutting the yuppie neighbors would have freed up space to focus more on Clark and his family. As an adult, I don’t find the plot about the stingy boss adds much to the film other than a throughline that gives the appearance of a plot. Creating other reasons for Clark to have his breakdown on Christmas Eve would have served the story better and helped a later scene where he talks things out with his father to resonate more. For so many of the scenes, these characters just serve to react to what Clark does rather than do their own things and participate in the story.
I think part of the problems stemmed from production woes that saw director Chris Columbus leaving the picture after being unable to work with the notorious asshole Chevy Chase. Even Hughes expressed how much he disliked that the Lampoon films existed to be vehicles for Chevy Chase to get a paycheck and mug for a bit on camera. Hughes felt sympathy for Columbus, which led to him giving the director the script for Home Alone, which came out the following holiday season. Because the Vacation movies always had to star Chase, the actor sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Christmas Vacation is still an enjoyable film to watch, but as an adult, you can see the cracks better and understand what a missed opportunity the movie truly is.