The Finally Screenings: I Just Saw National Lampoon’s Vacation For the First Time
n The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
Okay, National Lampoon. I finally watched Vacation. And I have a bone to pick.
If you want me to actually enjoy your ridiculous polyester slapstick-fests, you have to give me characters I care about. You don’t get a free pass because you show boobs or have a famous comedian in the lead.
It’s not subjective. It’s a (some might even say the) cornerstone of good storytelling. You need a hero who wants something, who believes in something, who loves something, to root for him. Something. Anything. It’s not unreasonable to hold a comedic character to that standard. And it’s not too much to ask. Why the hell are we supposed to like, let alone sympathize with, Clark Griswold? He doesn’t know anything about his kids, he isn’t loyal to his wife, he doesn’t want to go to Walley World, and he becomes more of a dick every mile of the way. He’s compelled to finish the trip, but for what conceivable reason? The directing seems determined to counteract what little pathos there is in the script to hold on to. The screenplay gives Clark moments of clarity and earnestness in his dialogue, but Chevy Chase seems determined not to let those moments stand in the way of Clark coming off as a blithe, selfish asshole, and treats those moments as more in a long line of Clark’s weird, platitudinous fatherly ramblings.
Which is fine, out of context. Clark Griswold is a great father character. But it’s a character based on what it’s like to be a kid with a dad who’s like that, seen through the strange and sometimes terrifying funhouse lens of childhood. It doesn’t make any sense to make a character that thin and reprehensible your lead character. That’s like making A Christmas Story about Ralphie’s dad. He, and Clark, are caricatures — so either relegate Clark to the background and tell the story from the perspective of the more relatable straight men Rusty and Audrey, or make your lead character someone we can actually root for.
These are all critiques of technique rather than of jokes, I know, but we can all agree that the way you tell a joke has much more to do with its success than the content, right?
There are jokes in Vacation — a ton of them — which are fourth-grade level stupid. Which can work, but it’s like filming improvisation or pornography — at a certain level of budget, commitment and production value, it starts to lose what makes it charming, interesting and believable. A joke about incest, or a dead aunt, or accidentally killing a bad dog, are most potent in very small, noncommittal doses. Once you dwell on it, or give it a big lead-up, or hit it too hard, you reveal too much about it, like over-lighting a haunted house. Who wants to see a movie about the man from Nantucket? Nobody. But as I said when I watched Animal House, it seems like the filmmakers love that they’re getting away with showing naked girls and making jokes about how black people always steal your hubcaps, so they bask in it too long and it starts to reveal that it isn’t even really a joke so much as just an idea — and a half-baked, one-dimensional, unfunny one at that.
But in Vacation’s defense — and in the defense of Animal House and Caddyshack as well — these were movies that were trying to go for broke on one very specific thing, and the synthesis of good storytelling and balls-out weird, raunchy comedy, when you’re the first people to do it, is undoubtedly more difficult than it appears in retrospect. In addition to which, they probably scored points for “bad” storytelling because it was, in itself, subversive. Creating a dishonorable lead character is a bold (and commendable!) undertaking, and it very understandably took a few years of trying before hitting on a formula that works — not just in the short term, but for future generations of viewers. They had to pinpoint the bare minimum amount of pathos needed to root for a character, but still give him room to be selfish or stupid. The modern comedic antihero, someone like Phil Connors, Black Adder, Max Fischer or Kenny Powers, is the product of all that honing in the 70s and 80s, so my hat goes off for that.
But something tells me that National Lampoon didn’t, and still doesn’t, have much regard for honing that particular skill. Vacation seems to care much more about its immediate impact than its lasting value as a story.
There are a few jokes that hit — watching the family have a great time at Walley World, Clark half-heartedly holding the security guard at gunpoint the whole time, is great. The one-liners and little runners, like the luggage falling off the car one piece at a time, are great. And if it weren’t his whole character, Chevy Chase’s corny dad moments would be hilarious. He has the perfect amount of bumbling optimism for a road trip leader doomed to failure, and when those moments and speeches serve the story, Chase and Clark both shine.
But it just isn’t enough for me. Vacation doesn’t hold up. It’s a film that tries to squeeze too much out of an unlikeable character, and it delights in telling jokes that only further prove why we shouldn’t care about what happens or why. Clark Griswold is a funny character in what could be a great story, but there’s too much wrong with how that story is told for it to hold its appeal.
In the end, Vacation is sort of like watching an actual vacation slideshow from the 80s: it’s a little disjointed, it’s missing a few details, and somehow it doesn’t seem quite as fun as I’m sure it was at the time.