“Nothing worthwhile is easy. You know that.”
You can’t blame the magazine for thinking movie-making was going to be easy after the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House. But does anyone really remember its two follow-ups National Lampoon’s Movie Madness and National Lampoon’s Class Reunion? I didn’t think so. Something about the latter must have hit someone’s funny bone, though, because screenwriter John Hughes—a writer for the periodical—would get another shot. This time it was in the form of a somewhat established property the producers knew could be successful as the script would be an expansion of Hughes’ already published short story entitled “Vacation ’58” about his childhood trek to Disneyland. Lampoon’s recruited Harold Ramis to direct after co-writing Animal House and finding box office glory helming Caddyshack and the rest is Vacation history.
With three sequels, a short, and new reboot on the way—not to mention a made for TV spin-off—you cannot deny the appeal or legacy set forth by the Griswolds’ cross-country journey to Walley World. The premise was tailor-made for skit-like comedy because, as every kid knows, there will be multiple stops along the way to experience mundane attractions on that bucket list they didn’t know they had. Family is visited, road mishaps are endured, and somebody always dies. Maybe that last part isn’t quite as universal as the rest, but it definitely adds some dark humor to the proceedings here. Include a brilliant hostage situation capper once Dad finally blows a gasket and it’s all easy to relate to by wishing we were as much of a selfish a-hole as patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase).
The adventure was perfectly suited to the comedian’s sensibilities as it’s chock full of smug mugging for the camera, aridly dry gags taking place without anyone directing attention to them, and one of the best streaks of utter ambivalence the comedy genre has seen. Some of the humor is over-the-top broad like he and son Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) attempting to open the doors of their former station wagon turned flattened piece of scrap metal, but for the most part the laughs come as a result of extreme facial expressions and coolly delivered one-liners without a whisker of a smile. This is its appeal: how Clark can simply stumble out of a harrowing incident like falling asleep at the wheel despite screaming bloody murder before serendipitously pulling into a parking space like it was the plan all along. “We’re here!”
It helps that Hughes and his actors paint supporting roles with the correct amount of personality to bounce off his buffoonery. Beverly D’Angelo‘s wife Ellen is the necessary foil with stern retorts and malicious stares, Dana Barron‘s Audrey the putout daughter, and Hall’s Rusty the voice of reason giving his father lessons when the old man attempts to lay down his own misbegotten wisdom. They’re a distortion of the family ideal with reversed roles delivering some of the best laughs and a shared feeling of apathy allowing the surrounding craziness to legitimately appear like it’s the problem rather than them. There’s no remorse, no regret, and certainly no sympathy whenever things go wild because they can’t be bothered to care. Their sense of entitlement astounds and the Griswolds have become the epitome of American cliché as a result.
An all-star cast of funny people bolsters their central dynamic by preying on their group stubbornness and Clark’s personal idiocy. Whether Eugene Levy‘s car salesman putting them into the glorious Wagon Queen Family Truckster or Brian Doyle-Murray requesting their address at his pigsty of a cabin stop to send them a mailer, the levels of absurdity crescendo from Lindsey Buckingham‘s “Holiday Road” opening to his “Dancin’ ‘cross the USA” finale. The now infamous cousins Eddie (Randy Quaid) and Catherine (Miriam Flynn) create a carnival mirror of horror for Clark and Ellen to look through and it’s no surprise they’ve stuck through the franchise as fan favorites. Christie Brinkley gets her first acting gig as the hot blonde Clark cannot avoid and John Candy steals the show as the nervous security guard forced to ruin his goal.
Some skits obviously work better than most and quick cuts to black between them do disjoint the pacing to make it seem longer than it is, but for the most part every pay-off is worth its journey. Nobody ever goes against the caricature they’re performing either—a crucial detail for the farce to succeed in projecting the stereotypes we’re familiar with from personal experience to shine through. National Lampoon’s Vacation isn’t meant to showcase character growth or deliver karmic retribution other than the steady stream of tragedy already thrown their way. The Griswolds were built to supply a window with which to see what we wish we could do if only society let us. They hate on cranky Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) to her face, seek adulterous situations, and literally hijack the vacation they covet.
They also do exactly what most of us would do and these situations are just as hysterical. Giving all their money to a pair of auto mechanic crooks, basking in the squalor of inner-city living before rolling up the windows at the first sign of what might be a gunshot, or being duped by family to begrudgingly volunteer their services—they are us. What’s so great about the film too is that there’s no specific period for this to be true. The circumstances they traverse are those that families have gone through for decades. No amount of technology or forward progress makes it so your next road trip vacation won’t see some or all of the same antics shown here. It truly is timeless and as such has remained a benchmark of cinematic comedy.