“Look around you, Ellen. We’re at the threshold of hell.”
While I enjoy A Christmas Story‘s 1940s holiday aesthetic like the rest—when it’s not on 24-hour TBS repeat—I prefer my dysfunctional yuletide spirit to hit a little closer to home. This is where Christmas Vacation comes in, National Lampoon’s 1989 classic continuation of the Griswold clan’s shenanigans that takes place the same decade as the one when I was still young enough to awaken every December 25th extra early to see what Santa brought. While the details aren’t exactly the same—we never went out to chop down a tree or counted on a bonus check to put a pool into either our Ft. Lauderdale or Buffalo backyards—its nostalgic look at the season’s chaotic brand of heightened emotions and frustrations is universal for anyone who’s used to entertaining the extended family under one festive roof.
Griswold patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase) is in prime comedic form whether dragging everyone into the freezing cold snow, losing coherency when face-to-chest with a busty shop girl, or throwing not-so-subtly sarcastic barbs of vitriol at those he despises. Credit to the late John Hughes for finding a way to expand his Vacation family’s adventures into a third film in six years, keeping them at home this time so the insanity can knock on their door. It’s the kind of humorous situations we all relate to that he made a career writing, a series of gags director Jeremiah S. Chechik lets evolve with hilarious performances and added visual flourishes to enhance each joke. For example, we all know that dreaded doorbell stopping us in our tracks to brace for the hell it brings well and they’ve captured it perfectly.
Beverly D’Angelo returns as Clark’s straight man and ever-supportive wife Ellen while children Rusty and Audrey are replaced once more, this time by Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis. Besides the opening sequence driving in their station wagon, however—a deceptive move to make us think another road trip is in store—Ellen and kids actually take a backseat once their eclectic houseguests arrive. Christmas Vacation becomes more a story of Clark coping with these clashing personalities and the constant bickering surrounding him rather than providing the unwavering attitude we’re used to him using to bring everyone together. This one’s about saving his perpetually set at eleven spirit finally slowed down to comatose inducing depression after discovering his boss (Brian Doyle-Murphy’s Frank Shirley) ruined his plans to once more be the hero and retain his “Family Man Extraordinaire” title.
As we move towards this breaking point and subsequent implausible solution, though, we also receive the usual bouts of physical, situational, and out-right absurd comedy we’ve grown to love from the Griswolds. Everything they do mimics our own holiday traditions yet more outlandishly so for added effect. How does finding the right sized tree become funnier? You make it spatially impossible by trying to fit a fifteen-foot tall pine in an eight-foot tall room after going Jason Voorhees on it with a chainsaw to mess with the pompous yuppies next door (Nicholas Guest’s Todd and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Margo). How does putting outside decorations up become the gag that never dies? Let Clark almost break his neck twice installing them, force him to fail to turn them on, and make the house visible from space when he finally does.
And as far as not allowing Clark et al to meet crazy periphery characters for some diversity a la their trek to Wally World, Hughes makes sure to paint the visiting relatives with as much or more color so the hilarity can crescendo even higher due to their close and permanent proximity. He does a wonderful job escalating the comedy too by first adding dueling grandparents (Doris Roberts and E.G. Marshall as Ellen’s judgmental Mom and Dad against Diane Ladd and John Randolph as Clark’s naively accommodating folks); then scene-stealing trailer park cousins Eddie (Randy Quaid) and Cathrine (Miriam Flynn); and finally senile and obliviously guilt-free Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel) and Lewis (William Hickey). It goes from verbal sparring to culture clashing to anything goes destruction fast before things start to blow up both metaphorically and materially.
It’s a raunchy escapade with just enough profanity to retain its PG-13 rating while also possessing the heart for it to endure as more than another crass comedy laughed at once and forgotten shortly after. Chase has never been better delivering his acquired brand of bitingly smug humor nor the physical pratfalls leading him to bash his head, fall from ladders, or go shooting down a snow hill on a metal disc polished with industrial strength lubrication. Lewis and Galecki hit their notes of incredulity flawlessly; Hickey and Questel are brilliantly over-the-top into parody with their elderly confusion; and Quaid’s uncouth Eddie officially gets cemented as one of cinema’s most beloved and infamous louts. We laugh because we are the Griswolds and we laugh harder because we thankfully (hopefully) aren’t as bad as them.