Surviving Bryan Cranston’s Nightmarish ‘Vacation’ Knock-Off, ‘National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion’

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I have long been perversely fascinated by a direct-to-video atrocity known alternately as National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion or National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Reunion. I assumed, understandably, that the film represented the sketchy nadir of National Lampoon’s beloved and terrible Vacation franchise, occupying a place somewhere below Vegas Vacation and its TV movie brethren Christmas Vacation 2: Eddie’s Island Adventure. If you’re not familiar with it, Christmas Vacation 2 was a film that boldly asked why hire Chevy Chase to star in a Vacation movie when Randy Quaid would be substantially cheaper and crazy and impossible to work with in a different way than the famously loathsome Chase?

It turns out that I was wrong. National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion is no proud, official member of the Vacation family of hateful movies about the terrible things that befall respectable white people when they are forced to interact with people unlike themselves. National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion wishes that its lineage could be traced back to the likes of Vegas Vacation and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Uncle Eddie’s Island Adventures. It aches to have that pedigree, that prestige.

National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion is not a Vacation movie so much as it is an off-brand, insanely derivative knock-off of the franchise kicked off by the Harold Ramis-directed, John Hughes-written smash of the Reagan era. The insane thievery begins with a title that’s more or less a clumsy synonym for Vacation. Naming a self-cannibalizing National Lampoon Vacation rip-off Holiday Reunion would be like National Lampoon following up Animal House with a wholly unrelated sex comedy called National Lampoon’s Beast Fraternity Building.

The TBS “original” movie’s word-salad of a title would be shameless and borderline unforgivable even if a movie entitled National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (also written by a young and hungry John Hughes) didn’t already exist, and if Lindsay Buckingham’s wonderfully catchy theme song to Vacation wasn’t called “Holiday Road.”

If National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion isn’t an official part of the Vacation canon it is more or less a shot-by-shot knockoff of the sequences from Vacation involving Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold and his uptight upper-middle-class family being traumatized by screaming vulgarity of Randy Quaid’s instantly and unfortunately iconic Cousin Eddie.

Ah, but this is not a Vacation movie, of course, so instead of a cheerfully oblivious Chase mugging his way through the lead role of a soggy slab of white bread we’re treated to Judge Reinhold slogging his way through the role of Dr. Mitch Snyder, a cheerfully oblivious husband and father. Holiday Reunion doesn’t just go out of its way to establish that its protagonist is solidly upper-middle-class. No, they distractingly make Reinhold’s protagonist a man who lives in a giant mansion and is apparently so famous as the anesthesiologist to the stars that people write magazine articles about him. But this is National Lampoon, so of course he’s also a schmuck, a put-upon goof whose children treat him with an appropriate degree of disrespect.

In the Cousin Eddie role, the filmmakers (including director Neal Israel, whose resume includes co-writing credits on Real Genius and Police Academy) cast a veteran sitcom actor apparently just itching for an opportunity to show the world his genius for rancid sex comedy: Bryan Cranston.

Yep, that’s right. Before he shaved his head to play a glowering psychotic the world fell in love with, and became one of our most beloved, respected and acclaimed thespians, Bryan Cranston thoroughly embarrassed himself as a misbegotten cross between Cousin Eddie, Woody Harrelson in full-on hippie dippy stoner moon child mode (Cranston’s character is even named Woody, for Christ’s sake), and Harry and Lloyd from Dumb & Dumber. In White, Cranston created one of pop culture’s true originals, but Cranston’s spaced-out goofball is as shamelessly derivative in conception and execution as everything else in the movie.

National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion’s plot calls for the wealthy anesthesiologist to receive a missive from his long-lost cousin Woody, who wants to reunite with his more successful relative for a good old fashioned family Thanksgiving. The doctor’s family is unenthused about leaving their comfort zone and interacting with strange people but the highly paid medical professional seizes upon this as an opportunity to finally experience a Norman Rockwell-style traditional holiday.

When the doctor and his family show up at Woody’s house they are mortified to discover that their cousin is a shaggy-haired, muttonchops-sporting space cadet hippie caricature with an unfortunate predilection for invading people’s personal spaces, often while unclothed. Like all good proper Americans, Mitch and his uptight wife understandably see sex as something gross and sick and wrong, that should be done privately, and shamefully, and only for the purpose of procreation.

Being poor, uneducated hillbilly-stoner-hippie-rednecks, however, Woody and his equally spacey wife Pauline (Penelope Anne Miller) flaunt their sexuality in ways guaranteed to horrify both the squares in their family and the squares in the audience. Woody and Pauline think nothing of making out hardcore for a seeming eternity in front of their cousins, or ambiguously trying to rope them into a semi-incestuous swinger-type scenario despite Mitch being, you know, Woody’s cousin.

Holiday Reunion even has Woody and his cousin shower together for the sake of gay-panic jokes that announce themselves clumsily, then linger for far too long. National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion intermittently aspires to the comedy of awkwardness and discomfort. But in scenes like the one where Woody and Pauline practically dry-hump in front of the Doctor and his wife’s disapproving eyes there is no comedy to be found, only profound awkwardness and discomfort. That extends to the audience and the filmmakers.

I would love to be able to report that Cranston elevates the proceedings, that he is able to smuggle some measure of emotion or subversion or cleverness into this dispiriting aggregation of jokes about gross people fucking and old people fucking and dogs fucking people. But this is one of those strange instances where a talented actor committing wholeheartedly to a role somehow works against the project.

Cranston really throws himself into the vulgar low comedy of the role. He’s the antithesis of Walter White. Where Walter White is famously bald and clean-shaven, Woody is almost preternaturally hirsute. Where Walter White is a genius, Woody is dim-witted almost to the point of being mentally challenged. Where Walter White is a control freak, Woody is a shambling mess. Most importantly, where Walter White was a brilliant character and performance in a television show people adore, Woody is a terrible character and performance in a movie that’s an abomination even by late-period National Lampoon standards.

Like the Vacation movies, National Lampoon’s Holiday Reunion reserves much of its derision, judgment and sour mockery for the poor and uneducated, but it really hates everybody. It’s primarily classist, but it’s just as misanthropic. Yet after an endless parade of limply executed fart jokes and sex jokes and dumb redneck jokes, the film inexplicably attempts to eke some emotion and pathos out its characters.

In a cynical attempt to be something more than bottom-feeding schlock, Holiday Reunion forces unconvincing epiphanies and redemptive emotional arcs on its lead characters. The doctor learns to be less uptight and more sexual (leading to a film-closing bestiality gag that sadly ends the movie on an characteristically gross note) while Woody learns to stand up and be a hero and be the man his family needs and other assorted crap.

The DVD box for Holiday Reunion quips, “This family trip is no vacation”, which is both true and untrue. Holiday Reunion desperately wants to be a Vacation movie but can’t measure up to their low, low standards. Thirteen years later, Holiday Reunion is notable mainly for being Cranston’s professional rock bottom. Its existence serves as a stark and brutally unfunny reminder that even the very best of us can do egregiously awful work.

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