National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.
Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) just wants to have a good ole’ fashioned family Christmas at his place, but Karma (or some other unstoppable, twisted force) is working against him. His relatives arrive — including his unwelcome, and terrifying cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) — just in time for all hell to break loose, leaving Clark teetering on the edge of insanity.
Why We Love It
I have a tradition, one that is as rock-solid as Christmas itself. Every year on Christmas Eve, I sit down to watch what I would contend is the greatest Christmas movie ever made, the John Hughes written, Jeremiah Chechik directed comedy National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It is the story of an idealist, one Clark W. Grisworld. All he wants to to have a happy Christmas with his closest of kin, and the in-laws. But Clark’s dream and his fanatical pursuit of the perfect Christmas are not to be — and as we find out, his follies are the source of great laughs and memorable moments.
I didn’t know it when I first began my tradition back in the late 90s, but this role for Chevy Chase will live on as probably his greatest, right up there with Ty Webb in Caddyshack. And while the Griswolds (including Beverly D’Angelo as his wife Ellen and a rotating assortment of actors playing Rusty and Audrey) have had many other adventures (including a notorious trip to Wally World), their big family Christmas is their most beloved. Every moment is classic in its own right, from Audrey’s (Juliette Lewis) eyes freezing shut after a long walk to find the perfect Christmas tree to Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) torching said tree, to the yuppie neighbors (Nicholas Guest and Julie Louis-Dreyfuss) getting a what-for every 20 minutes or so.
It seems to be that this movie exists within a perfect storm of comedic talents, every actor in their prime. It wasn’t just Chase, but also Randy Quaid as the obnoxious, unabashed trailer-trash Cousin Eddie who was great. As was the ever-subtle, but oh-so-punchy performance of Beverly D’Angelo. And lest we forget that this was the final performance of Mae Questel, the iconic voice of Betty Boop for over 50 years, as the confused, but charming and hilarious Aunt Bethany. Add to that the likes of a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a pre-adulthood Juliette Lewis and a pre-pre-stardom Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory).
It is impossible to overlook this film’s balance of charm and absurdity. In one moment, we find Clark Griswold stuck in the attic, where he’s been accidentally locked away by his shivering mother in-law, watching old footage of family Christmases from his childhood. We pull out, only to reveal that he’s also wearing the only warm clothes he could find, a selection of garments from his mother’s wardrobe, which also happen to be from the time of his childhood. Then as we’ve expected from the moment he was trapped, someone opens the attic door, sending the pink-gloved Clark plummeting back into the house. It’s an all-at-once sweet, reverent and completely ridiculous sequence. The exact sort of thing upon which this movie thrives.
In an era that gave us The Goonies and the best of Spielberg, as well as The Breakfast Club and the best of John Hughes, this was the essential holiday treat. It is full of so many moments — sledding at 100mph, checking every strand of a million Christmas lights, an epic battle between squirrel and men and dog, the list goes on. So many moments that I can barely bring myself to find that one special one for the next section of this feature. What I do know is this: every year I bring this movie out and watch it, and every year I’m laughing — laughing hard — at jokes that I’ve seen and repeated hundreds of times. And they’re still funny, no matter how many time they’re replayed. “Shitter was full,” Cousin Eddie will say during my 2009 viewing. “Hahahaha…” I will respond as I roll around on my couch, all snuggled up with blankets.
Moment We Fell in Love
As if there were only one. But now that I’m forced to choose, I believe it would have to be the moment that we first meet Cousin Eddie. It follows closely the moment when Clark finally defeats the unexpectedly monumental task of putting up Christmas lights, just as “Hallelujah” is booming away and the Griswold kin are tearily looking at their home, a bright beacon of Christmas cheer (and a power-draining entity that their local municipality did not see coming).
As Clark makes it to the end of the row, thanking his family for being there, we meet Eddie, the film’s chaotic wild card — a good-hearted, misguided and charming oaf who showed up for a surprise visit in his Winnebago, complete with Catherine (Miriam Flynn), his kids and his dog, Snot. This is the moment that closes the book on the first major conflict that faces Clark, and sets the tone for the rest of the film. The bulk of the great moments from hear-on-out revolve around the relationship between Clark and Cousin Eddie. And in this glorious introduction, we see what lies ahead, even though we have no idea what’s coming for us.
I certainly can’t force you to adopt my Christmas Eve tradition of watching this film, but that won’t stop me from trying. Sure, you can go out there this holiday season and watch “meaningful” stories that show you CG-infused train rides through a snowy terrain, or those tired old stories of Tiny Tim and his dad’s cranky employer. But wouldn’t it be better to see a Christmas tale unlike the others, one that delivers the true message of the modern holiday — the togetherness that idealist Clark must ultimately learn is the real meaning of the holidays? Wouldn’t you rather laugh along with family and friends as Cousin Eddie empties his chemical toilet into the storm sewer, only to see it explode later in the film’s touching final moments? Of course you would. That is why this film is so special, because it infinitely charming and undeniably fun. If for no other reason, you should check this classic out this year to celebrate the life of writer John Hughes, as this is one of his great unsung works.
That, and it’s funny. What’s so hard to understand?
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