The Christmas Pile: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

Unwrapped from the hoard this week!
Unwrapped from the hoard this week!

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is proof that there’s such a thing as being “too human” for the average movie. He wants the best for his wife and kids, weary but understanding Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and jaded Rusty and Audrey (Johnny Galecki & Juliette Lewis.) Best, unfortunately, often means going to the extreme in the Griswold household.

Clark is also another ’80s working class type forced to do battle with Republican America’s greedpig elite, whether he’s feeling unappreciated by his wealthy boss (Brian Doyle-Murray) or locking horns with the yuppie next door neighbors (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.) I say ‘working class,’ even though the Griswolds live in prime estate typical of anything John Hughes wrote or directed.

But for all his good qualities, Clark is an asshole as well. He is prone to irrationality and narcissistic acts of recklessness when his pride is wounded. After enduring one disaster after another he tends to explode in epic verbal tantrums, and Christmas Vacation has a famous tirade. When Clark crosses paths with an attractive woman his sex drive overrides his thinking.

I used to be put off by Clark’s underlying maliciousness until I realized how well it fits into that middle-aged ‘everyman’ persona. He’s a good man at heart, but show me a good man who isn’t capable of being a jerk and I’ll sell you my house. Like I said, too human.

In Christmas Vacation, the second sequel in the Vacation series, Clark is hellbent on providing his immediate and extended family with the most memorable, nostalgic at home Christmas his house can withstand, regardless of how many windows, ceilings or pieces of furniture must be sacrificed to justify the means. Like all the Vacation movies, Murphy’s Law is a persistent, omnipresent force. Everything from the Christmas tree to the turkey to the outside lights is a disaster waiting to happen. Some of it can be attributed to bad luck, but most has to do with Clark’s insistence on going the extra mile too far.

No matter how much goes wrong, Clark barely keeps his temper under control because he’s looking forward to a sure-to-arrive-any-minute bonus check. He needs it to cover a down payment he dropped on the surprise gift to end them all, a swimming pool. As the delay continues and the damage keeps piling up, Clark must hold onto his delicate sanity.

As an annual holiday tradition National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a relatable film, serving as a reminder that the holidays can be and are often a hassle. Despite the fellowship, the food and good food one looks forward to, at least one wrench in the works will make it a royal pain. And there’s no shame in admitting that.

As standalone fare, however, Christmas Vacation suffers, starting with its characters. Clark is easily the most interesting person in the movie, while most of the others are relegated to hanging around in the background. The yuppies exist as punching bags to absorb the collateral damage. We never learn much about the large roster of relatives except that they are taking up space in the house. The same can be said for Ellen and the Griswold children. Ellen tries to be patient, Audrey acts like a typical teenage brat, and Rusty is just tired and used to it all. That’s basically it for them.

Until the arrival of Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany (William Hickey and Mae Questel) the only other character who stands out besides Clerk is Cousin Eddie (Randy Quayd) an oblivious degenerate with a big heart. He rolls up in his tarnished RV from somewhere south of Deliverance, bringing his clan and his slobbery, destructive Doberman to throw more kindling to an already raging fire. Once Eddie arrives he steals the show, a welcome element since no one else has been doing much.

Then Aunt Bethany and Uncle Lewis enter the picture, standing in for those badly aging relatives we all have. Bethany is completely gone, Lewis is well on his way there, and together their senility is a force that destroys what’s left of the house. They turn the awkwardness well past eleven.

And here’s where, for the first time since I started Sifting Through the Hoard, that my honesty is going to hurt. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is kind of flat and boring. There, I said it. Maybe the shine has worn off after so many repeat viewings, or maybe I need to drop some lashes in my critical eye and learn how to turn off my brain. The gags rely on Loony Tunes style cartoon surrealism. By the time Cousin Eddie, Aunt Bethany and Uncle Lewis are introduced the movie needs them to refuel its steam. Their presence livens things up, but there’s still a way to go after that.

Still, I can’t help but root for a man like Clark Griswold, who shines for being made up of an average human’s best and worst qualities. When he (SPOILERS?) stands on his front lawn at the end of the movie, looks up at the stars with a smile and says, “I did it,” I get choked up. Seeing him win makes me happy. As much of a bastard as Clark can be, he is a hard-working, persevering hero worth getting behind. I just wish everyone else who makes up Christmas Vacation had those qualities.