In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
Okay, National Lampoon. You win this round.
Christmas Vacation is the first National Lampoon movie I’ve seen for this column that actually works. Impossible, you say? Well, maybe it’s the benevolent Christmas spirit filling my tiny green Grinch heart. Or maybe it’s some decent characters and set pieces finally given a chance to take on some dimension and relatability.
It’s not that difficult to do, and when it happens it makes a world of difference. It’s actually pretty fascinating to compare this movie to Vacation because there’s no need to stretch the parallels — it’s the same characters, the same relationships, the same lead actor, the same writer. It’s just better this time around, and the reason is clear: it actually makes sense.
The Clark Griswold of Vacation is a sociopath. He’s a terrible husband and father who is driven to give his family a perfect road trip whether they want it or not, which they don’t, and neither does he. And he fails. It doesn’t make any sense, so what is there to resonate? The Clark Griswold of Christmas Vacation has one distinct difference: he actually loves his family. He has all the same failings, but they’re failings built into a guy who really does want the best for his family. He wants to give them a perfect Christmas because he wants a perfect Christmas and so do they. And in the end, he sort of succeeds! Think I’m splitting hairs? Humbug. It’s night and day. The scene where Clark finds the old reels of family films in the attic and watches them in his pajamas, or the scene between Clark and his father are both genuinely sweet moments, and grease the wheels of the rest of the film. Moments like those – relationships like those – counterbalance all the ridiculous toupee jokes and barfing dogs and make the sappy ending something an audience actually pulls for.
But how did National Lampoon let this seed of pathos germinate in their poop-joke garden? Did they grow up a little? Maybe. I think some credit has to go to 1989, too. As the end of the 80s ushered in a new era of cinematic saccharinity, even the nihilistic National Lampoon producers started working a little pathos into material that, 10 years earlier, wouldn’t have touched an honest moment with a 10-foot pole.
Writer John Hughes had learned a lot, too, so it’s no wonder his writing improved dramatically. When he wrote Vacation, his writing credits included a couple TV shows and Mr. Mom. Christmas Vacation comes after having written a string of some of the funniest comedies of the 80s - Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and, depending on whom you ask, Weird Science. Hughes was in top form, and even though Christmas Vacation doesn’t measure up to his best stuff, it’s clearly coming from a veteran comedy writer, unlike Vacation, which seems pretty rudimentary by comparison.
But what Hughes does best — tight relationships, solid character games and heavy pop-culture work – seems squelched in favor of emulating the elements that made Vacation (and, I assume, European Vacation) a success. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s interesting to see a writer try to emulate an earlier, prototypical version of himself.
In addition to the storytelling, the jokes in Christmas Vacation work better because they actually reflect some kind of common holiday experience. Maybe not the cat-vaporizing or boss-abducting, but the set pieces here are based in an actual struggle to have a idyllic family holiday, something that Vacation never tapped into. Road trips are a common family experience, sure, but beyond that, none of the sketches (for lack of a better term) referred to any real shared experience — it’s all caricature. Nobody’s had their aunt die on a road trip or showed up to a closed theme park. Here, though, the sketches are the proper distance from reality. Everyone’s tried to find the one bad light. Everyone’s gotten a tree that’s too big. Everyone’s had too many family members at their house. It’s just enough connection that you can get as big and silly as a Vacation movie can and still have it be about what Christmas is like for everyone.
I could have done with a tiny bit less Randy Quaid, but otherwise, this movie works. What do you know? My heart grew three sizes!
Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.