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National Lampoon’s Vacation

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1983

‘…Hughes and Ramis make a decent fist of finding humour in everyday situations…’

Are you ready to take a trip down the old Holiday Road? If there’s one big name artiste that reliably seems to cause an explosive reaction when mentioned on this website, it’s the wonderful Chevy Chase. I gather from previous comments that not everyone else is a fan of this genial, easy-going comic, but National Lampoon’s Vacation was one of his biggest hits, and resurfacing on Netflix, this critic was frenetically sharpening his pencils for a re-assessment of the great man’s work. And indeed, National Lampoon’s Vacation is still a good film with a few missteps perhaps, but then what we laugh at has changed over the last four decades.

Adapted by John Hughes from his own short story, and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation is an unusual film for a number of reasons. The story of Clark Griswold (Chase) taking his family on a cross-country road trip, the result is episodic and almost plotless, and clearly has been shot across America on actual locations from Chicago to Santa Monica.. There is incident, for sure, most of it exaggerated for comic effect. Eugene Levy’s car salesman accidentally crushes Griswold’s car, but deposits it neatly back on the sidewalk. Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) doesn’t just look dead in the car’s back seat, she is dead. But each failure takes a toll on Clark Griswold, and alienated and frustrated, he eventually ends up taking the employees of destination Walley World hostage in his Howard Beale-lite rage.

Chase actually does well with the gear-shift from pushy dad to maniac, but he’s got a great team around him, notably Beverly D’Angelo who makes Ellen much more than a foil for Clark’s bravado. In fact, Ellen regularly gives it tight to Clark about what he’s doing wrong; sure, she’s one more indignity for a hen-pecked husband, but she’s also a strong woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Teen movie fans will recognise Anthony Michael Hall pre-Breakfast Club, but it’s something of a shock to see Jane Krakowski as a weed-dealing kissing-cousin.

National Lampoon’s Vacation sets a low bar, and some of the sexist and racist humour has dated badly; we probably don’t need the emphasis on the continual existence and novelty of breasts, and the racism of the pit-stop in St Louis would have been better excised. But there are still some funny scenes here, and Hughes and Ramis make a decent fist of finding humour in everyday situations; even the dead-body black comedy that most talents get wrong plays well here. With Lindsay Buckingham’s infectious theme tune blaring from the speakers of your station wagon, National Lampoon’s Vacation is a choice serving of primo Chevy Chase, hot from the griddle. Enjoy!

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  1. Chevy Chase brings on the laughs and really that’s all we ever ask for. This is one of his best. Not sure he ever reached five-star territory but this is a perfectly enjoyable example of what he does best. I liked him stretching his legs in Fletch.

  2. The greatest film of all time. Four reasons:
    1) John Hughes. The king of ’80s comedy, is it any surprise he writes this? Then perfectly tied with director Harold Ramis – Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and more – you’re just going to get the best comedy of all time.
    2) The cameos: legendary John Candy; iconic Eugene Levy; and Brian Doyle-Murray, brother of Bill. What more needs to be said? If you’ve got the script with smatterings of oddball characters and such talent even playing the minor roles, well… you’ve got a triumph of your hands!
    3) The humour. Yes, it can be crude and a little outdated, but unlike modern day comedies, it’s never disgusting – apart from maybe the peed on sandwich – and always dignified. It’s darker edge was, unfortunately, never quite replicated in any of the latter films, and that’s why this Vacation will always be the best.
    4) And, of course: Chevy. Genius. Chase. His chemistry D’Angelo is just spot on. This is miraculous work for the man, and easily stapled himself as one of the greatest comedians of all time. But here’s the thing: he carries out Clark’s transformation with such panache that I’m surprised no one ever gave him the chance to play straight. Imagine Die Hard – with Chevy Chase. A massively missed opportunity. John Belushi, eat your heart out.
    A simple 10 out of 10 for me.

    • Ok, your ban has been rescinded and in fact you will now replace the unfortunate Alex Good on the Champions League of Critics; his name was put there due to a clerical error and he will now be demoted to the conference league. Your opinions on the great Chevy Chase are perceptive and illuminating, and should do much to help a reserved restoration of this magnificent comic talent.

      • Thank you, thank you! Really, I must thank the one and only Mr Chevy Chase – I couldn’t have done it without him. Hopefully, together, we can go along way to shining a far more positive light on one of the greatest.

        • Haha, congratulations on a real achievement. I’ll bet Eberneezer Good in Canada is plotting some petty revenge. Probably cheating his own quiz by adding my correct answers to your tally, am I right? That’s why the call him the Sasquatch Shame!

                    • How many attempts did it take, Bozo? You only get one shot at the Death Star…instant ban for cheating!

                    • Ok, so let’s imagine I missed the Death Star with my first shot and it isn’t destroyed. What happens?

                      Well, Yavin 4 and the Rebel base there is destroyed. Leia Organa dies along with the Rebellion generals there, the vast majority of the Rebellion’s pilots, support personnel and transports. Wedge Antilles’ fighter though damaged is still able to make a hyperjump to an emergency rendezvous point, along with Luke, the one other surviving Rebel fighter and the Millennium Falcon.

                      It is indeed a dark time. Though people throughout the Galaxy are appalled at the callous murder of an entire planet’s population, the fear that they could be next suppresses dissent.

                      Luke is despondent. The Force was indeed with him, but it just wasn’t enough. For his aunt and uncle, for Ben Kenobi, for Leia, for his old friend Biggs, for all the brave people who fought and died in vain, he swears vengeance against the black monster who brings evil and death wherever he goes.

                      Han and Chewbacca take the money they were paid and manage to mollify Jabba. Meanwhile Luke joins what’s left of the Rebellion under Mon Motha. The only hope now of destroying the Death Star is to sneak an agent inside to sabotage it, but security is seemingly absolute. Luke realizes that if only he can somehow master the Force enough to be able to sneak through the Deathstar like Obi-Wan did, he might be the only person in the galaxy able to destroy it. In a strange dream or vision Kenobi tells Luke to make his way to the Dagoba system and find Yoda, the last living Jedi.

                      Luke does so, and begins his training. But a black undercurrent of hate and vengeance runs through Luke. He gains mastery of the Force swiftly but Yoda fears he’s following in exactly the same path his father did. In order to warn Luke, Yoda and Obi-Wan reveal the truth about Vader to him. This only increases Luke’s doubts and fears, but Obi-Wan tells him that the Emperor is the true menace.

                      The chance to move against the Empire comes when Palpatine decides that Tarkin has served his purpose and removes him, assuming direct command of the Death Star. A stolen security code gets Luke smuggled aboard the Death Star- but the Emperor and Vader await him. Vader and Luke duel, and this time Luke reaches into the Dark Side enough to defeat and cut him down. The Emperor tries to talk Luke into becoming his new apprentice, but Luke attacks him. As the Emperor’s Force Lightning sears him, Luke manages with the ethereal help of Obi-Wan and Yoda to reproduce Mace Windu’s ability to turn it back on its source. With the Emperor dead, an automated self-destruct designed to destroy the Death Star rather than leave it in anyone else’s hands is activated. A badly wounded Luke manages to limp to the shuttle bay in time to get away.

                      The galaxy rejoices at the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the Death Star. But a grim and scarred Luke Skywalker can take little joy in it. His ultimate path in the Force is yet undecided.”

                      So, yes, actually, I would finally defeat Alex’s question.

  3. I adore Christmas Vacation and watch it almost every year around the holidays. As much as I love it, for some reason it never occurred to watch his other National Lampoon films….!

    • Don’t worry, there is no way I’d allow a major work like Christmas Vacation to go without comment, lining that one up for an unseasonal September review. Great to hear the cream of the critical world getting behind these great films…

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