Friday, November 24, 2017

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Film In Focus

By Jonathon Saia

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (WB, 1989) – Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik. Writer: John Hughes. Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Brian Doyle-Murray, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ellen Latzen, William Hickey, Mae Questel & Sam McMurray. Color, Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.        

Every family has their holiday traditions.

Reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas" around the fire. Finding the pickle on the Christmas tree. Singing carols around the piano. Getting drunk to survive the foolishness. The holidays bring out the best and the worst of what it means to be a family.

One of the Saia Family traditions (in addition to all of the above) was watching the Griswolds. I've probably seen this movie a dozen times and always thought of it as a lightweight, feel good reflection of the stress the holidays bring to us all. The Christmas my grandfather died, in desperate need of a laugh, we still gathered around the TV as usual and I began to realize just how great – not just emotionally rewarding – of a film it actually is.

Notice when Clark (Chase) gives his boss a Christmas gift; all of the gifts from all of his workers are shaped exactly the same, symbolizing the cookie-cutter expectation of white collar America. Clark and his boss (played by the indefatigably cantankerous Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill's brother) are separated by a giant table, speaking volumes about the company's relationship to its workers. Notice the way Audrey's (Lewis) eyes are frozen over when shopping for the tree. Or Russ' (Galecki) frustration being given the task of unraveling the ball of lights, illustrating the way children suffer for their parents' mistakes. Or the scene in bed when Clark's fingers get sticky with the glue from the magazine. Or the great montage when the grandparents arrive yelling at one another and then unloading their grievances and their outpourings of emotion on their hosts not even two minutes in the door. The way Eddie (Quaid) piles bag upon bag of dog food into Clark's cart. The way Ellen (D'Angelo) and Audrey bond over the inescapable wounds of family pressure. And every single moment featuring Uncle Lewis (Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Questel). This film is filled with moments of tacit specificity that create an elaborate tapestry of Mid-American provincial life.

Christmas Vacation has it all: It's a road movie as they travel into the woods to chop down their own tree. It's an action movie as they struggle to get out from under the truck and the SWAT team busts through their windows. It's a sex comedy as Clark flirts with the clerk at the mall and later dreams of her doing a private striptease just for him. It's a gross out comedy as Eddie dumps his full shitter into their sewage drain. It's slapstick as the Griswolds' neighbors fall down the stairs and get attacked by dogs. It's a Man Against the Machine film as Clark finds himself an anonymous cog in the corporate wheel and shoppers fall over themselves for the last-minute deals. It's a socio-economic treatise seeing what poverty does to the family unit. It's a four-hankie weeper as Clark watches his old home movies and has a heart to heart with his dad after everything goes down hill. The screenplay by John Hughes, the master of smart comedies with heart, combines all of these seemingly mismatched elements to give us a frighteningly real life portrait of the Willie Loman in all of us.

And standing in as our Everyman is the under-appreciated Chevy Chase, always overshadowed by other titans of his generation like Bill Murray or John Belushi. But in every Chase performance there is a suave mastery of the art of physical comedy. And his most famous character, Clark Griswold, reminds me of something Buster Keaton would have played. Pantomimed to perfection, filled with passion and heart and bravery. There is a reason why he is Chevy Chase and we are not.

Christmas Vacation is also filled to the brim with wonderful character actors. Doris Roberts. Diane Ladd. E.G. Marshall. John Randolph. Miriam Lynn. A pre-Roseanne Galecki. A pre-Cape Fear Lewis. A pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus. A post-Oscar nominated Hickey and Quaid. The great Mae Questel who was the voice of "Betty Boop" and "Olive Oyl." And the neglected D'Angelo. Seriously. Where has she gone?

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation taps into the joys and heartbreaks of trying to bring your family the perfect gathering, no matter which holiday you celebrate. And most poignantly, it makes you look at your own insane, obnoxious, pull-your-hair-out-frustrating family and somehow love them. To see through all the muck and mire and just love them.

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