May 16, 2013

National Lampoon's VACATION Is The Hilarious Chaser To An Emotional Day


"I think you're all fucked in the head!"

When I was a kid, Chevy Chase was the definition of "not funny."

It's all a matter of timing.  When I started to really become aware of individual actors in that way where their very presence influences your desire to see a particular movie, Chevy's career was in the doldrums.  He was churning out unwatchable crap like Cops And Robbersons and Man Of The House.  He really didn't turn it around until his memorable arc as a major villain on NBC's Chuck, which of course led to his fantastic work as Pierce Hawthorne on Community.  In fact, the last time Chase was the lead in a truly great movie was 1989's Christmas Vacation, which means we're talking about roughly twenty years (a.k.a. most of my life) of appearing in wall to wall cinematic garbage.

Thankfully, at some point in high school or college I discovered Caddyshack.  And Fletch.  And Spies Like Us.  And the first season of Saturday Night Live.  And I remembered he was one of The Three Amigos.

It was like a slap to the face.

"Ohhhhhhh, this guy used to be HILARIOUS!  What the hell happened?"

I never watched any of National Lampoon's Vacation movies growing up because, on the surface and in the context I understood Chevy Chase at the time, they sounded like more middle of the road, whitebread family comedies.  (Again, this was before I had seen Animal House and really understood what to expect from the Lampoon.)  I had absolutely no idea how subversive these movies really were.  And even when I did finally get into the Vacation series, I did it all wrong.  I think I saw Vegas Vacation first because it was the only one I actually remember coming out in theaters.  That was followed by European Vacation, which I liked but didn't love, and eventually Christmas Vacation.  In a lot of ways, Christmas feels like the safest one of the bunch; at the end of the day it's still a warm and fuzzy Christmas movie, but it's also flat out hilarious.  And somehow, after all of that, I had still never gotten around to seeing the original Vacation...

To give a little viewing context, the day I watched this movie was the Friday of the "Boston Manhunt," when I woke up to discover that the entire city was on lockdown while police officers went door to door through Watertown searching for marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  I was lacing up my shoes to go to work when I got an alert that the T (subway for you non-locals) was not running and I flipped on the TV to see what was going on.  Jamie and I spent the next 12 hours essentially glued to the television, watching and waiting for some kind of development in the pursuit.  Work was cancelled for the day, but I simply could not bring myself to turn off the local news in favor of my daily film, so I got a little writing done instead.  Eventually my parents and my sister came over and we watched as police cornered Tsarnaev on that infamous boat and eventually took him into custody a little after 8:30 PM.  At this point we were starving for dinner, so we all piled into the car and headed to Terry O'Reilly's pub in Newton, which is one town over from Watertown.  (We could see the police lights as we pulled off the Mass Pike.)  The crowd at the bar was small since they'd only been allowed to open after the lockdown was lifted, but we were boisterous and relieved, applauding the cops on the TV and raising our glasses while listening to every song from or about Boston on the jukebox.

We got home around midnight and Jamie and I were so exhausted that we immediately crawled into bed.  I lay there for about three minutes, at which point I said, "Oh shit."

Jamie turned to me, already half asleep.  "What's wrong?"

"I haven't watched a movie yet today."

And so I pulled myself out of bed and out into the living room in search of something to watch.  I checked the DVR and remembered that I had recorded Vacation on HBO a few days prior.  Humor seemed appropriate for the day, so I dove right in.  There's simply no need for me to go through the plot at this point, but I will say that the movie lived up to it's reputation.  It's a very sharp comedy, which is no surprise coming from director Harold Ramis and writer John Hughes in their respective primes.  Honestly, if someone had told me that those two guys were largely responsible for this movie, I would have gone out of my way to see it a lot earlier.  The strength of the family dynamic really holds the film together, so no matter how insane things get, you really believe in the bond that keeps these characters together.

The exception here is the subplot with Christie Brinkley as the hot blonde in the Ferrari.  Make no mistake, all of Chevy's long distance silent flirting is wonderful, and I love the way that Clark Griswold can instantly transition from nerdy family man to charming rake.  (Those oversized glasses really help.)  I even buy it when, after fighting with Ellen and feeling like his family has turned on him, he struts into the hotel bar in those incredible white shoes and actually ends up having a drink with the mystery girl, which leads to some late night skinny dipping in the pool.  It works because she's the instigator and Clark is largely following her lead, testing the boundaries of his fidelity and seeing how far he can go before his own morality kicks in.  The way he gets caught is also very funny, but it's the aftermath I couldn't get on board with.  Ellen sort of pouts for a few moments, and then turns on a dime and leads Clark back out to the pool for their own naked swim time.  I'm sorry, but I can't think of any woman I know, (my wife chief among them) who would catch their boyfriend/husband naked with another woman and not only forgive him in under five minutes, but then basically suggest they go bone in the hotel pool.

Otherwise the movie is filled with excellent gags, especially the entire ordeal with Aunt Edna* and her poor, poor dog.**  Considering how big a role he would come to play in all of the Vacation sequels, I was surprised that Randy Quaid's Uncle Eddie didn't make more of an impact.  He's certainly one of the best things in Christmas Vacation, but he's also bugnuts crazy in that movie.  Here Eddie seemed positively tame.  (Oh, and hello young Jane Krakowski!)  I'm always a sucker for outdated computer gags, so I loved the scene with the Atari at the beginning.  The old west saloon is a well executed bit and I'm always happy to get a solid scene from Brian Doyle-Murray in a funny hat.  The end at Wally World is pretty perfect, the kind of insanity that so typifies 80's comedy and simply can't be pulled off today.  Plus John Candy just kills through that entire sequence.

I admit that after an emotional rollercoaster of a day, (see what I did there?) I fell asleep on the couch right as they got to Wally World and had to watch the ending three times before I got all the way through it, but I'm glad I finally checked this one off the list.  Much like The Monster Squad, this feels like a movie that I probably would have enjoyed far more if I had first seen it when I was Rusty's age.  There have been a few attempts to revive the Vacation franchise, most recently with Ed Helms playing a grown up Rusty Griswold and Christina Applegate as his wife taking their own family on vacation.   The project seems to have been shelved for now, but I'm curious if the family road trip premise is something that can still strike a chord with audiences.  Is that something that people still do?  My parents certainly took us on plenty of trips, but we never spent days driving from state to state.  It would be interesting to see how a reboot/remake would handle that aspect of the story.  I'm guessing iPads would be heavily involved.



*Yes, I had an easier time believing they would strap a dead woman to the top of their car, then leave her in their cousin's backyard in the rain than I did believing in that pool scene.)

**This scene destroyed me.

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Title: National Lampoon's Vacation
Director: Harold Ramis
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Randy Quaid
Year Of Release: 1983
Viewing Method: HBO HD