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!