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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

by on 2010/12/02

If it were possible to run the numbers with any degree of accuracy, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I’ve seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at least once a year on average since its release.  For me it’s more a tradition than a classic, popular with family and friends alike.  Christmas movie first, John Hughes film second, and Vacation entry third, it’s a tonic for common sentiment, without the ham-fisted spite and narrow appeal of something like Bad Santa.

Less a cohesive narrative than a collection of related vignettes, Christmas Vacation brings us closer to the Griswold family than any Vacation picture before or since.  Set in and around a house, neighbourhood, and city typical of most Hughes films, this one feels less a piece of its own than a hybrid of others, including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Home Alone, and Sixteen Candles.  It also resembles the previous year’s non-Hughes Scrooged to some degree, perhaps a function of the shared era, office spaces, similar music, and the presence of Brian Doyle Murray.

In addition to Bill’s big brother, the cast features the usual Griswold players — Chevy Chase as Clark, Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen, Randy Quaid as Eddie, and Miriam Flynn as Catherine — as well as a host of other actors, notably Juliette Lewis as Audrey, Johnny Galecki as Rusty, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as yuppie neighbour Margo.

My first reaction is a familiar one; I feel the same every time I rewatch it:  what happened to Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” theme?  If its lyrics don’t apply to a non-travelogue tale, couldn’t they be adapted to the season?  Regardless, I enjoy the main title sequence, with its whimsically cynical tone, an appropriate animation for what’s to come.  After the initial musical adjustment, I have few major complaints.

Speaking of music, I am as yet unable to process the fact that Angelo Badalamenti composed this score.  In comparison with the Pet Shop Boys and David Lynch — in particular Twin Peaks — his work here feels [Danny] Elfman-esque at times, and conventional overall.

Since I’m doling out faint praise, let me divest myself of any lingering bile.  First, the sledding scene has poor rear projection that its editing fails to hide.  Second, I hate — Hate!  Hate!  Hate! — the distraction of Clark’s eyeglasses.  Viewers inevitably look to an actor’s face, to their eyes, for feedback, especially in a close-up.  Nothing screams “fake” to me quite like the sight of a character whose eyes are blocked by flat and reflective lenses.

Okay.  End of rant.

While not directed by the late John Hughes himself, this effort nonetheless bears many of his hallmarks.  Both story and script support his having been a keen observer of the human condition.  In the midst of the series’ buffoonery, he takes more time with the characters  than such offerings usually do.  We see new sides to the Griswold family, aspects of their home, work, and leisure lives.  Small moments succeed not only in amusing, but also illustrating.  We learn of aspirations and frustrations, how these people feel, and how others feel about them, especially Clark.

Though I’m not generally a fan of the approach taken here — throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks — the characters and their stories are effectively portrayed.  Beyond the slapstick and the sarcasm, the Griswolds are human, charmingly vulnerable, with an understanding of nostalgia, appreciation of family, and the capacity for hope.

Highly rewatchable, National Lampoon’s Christmas holds up over time and across different ages, though it may be too adult for younger kids.  While it has a soft center, and the occasional moment of sap, its humour is often barbed, and never descends into saccharine.  Make no mistake, I don’t think it’s a great movie, but it is exceptionally good.

* * * *

Rated PG/PG13 for adult situations, language, violence

98 minutes

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