The third movie in the National Lampoon “Vacation” series once again features the well-intentioned walking disaster zone that is Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) and his long-suffering family (Ellen, the loving wife, who has always been played by the lovely Beverly D’Angelo and the two young kids, Audrey and Russell, who always seem to be played by new actors in each instalment – this time Juliette Lewis plays Audrey and a young Johnny Galecki plays Russell). The main difference is that this time around they’re not actually travelling anywhere. This time around the main ambition for Clark is to host the perfect family Christmas. Well, he also wants his Christmas bonus from work to make sure he can pay for that swimming pool that he’s put a large deposit on but that just ties in with the big celebration, in a way. Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid, playing someone a bit insane who roams the USA with his family in a mobile home – perhaps this role rubbed off on him a bit more than he ever thought) drops by to add to the burden and there are a number of elderly relatives as quick to complain as they are slow to lend a hand. The trendy neighbours (played by Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) don’t exactly add to the feeling of goodwill either. It’s going to be a long holiday season in the Griswold household.
While so many of the older Christmas classics (especially those from the 1940s – a goldmine for festive favourites) really manage to promote the spirit of Christmas and the values that it really centres around, many other movies have produced equally great results with very different angles. Some make a point of bursting the bubble of commercialism, some provide an adaptation or riff of the classic Charles Dickens tale, others show that Christmas is more than just one day full of traditions and excess – it’s a state of mind.
Christmas Vacation stands as a modern classic in the subgenre of festive movies because it looks specifically at the highs and lows, the amazing rollercoaster ride, that every family goes through when trying to provide a memorable day for their loved ones. The atmosphere can be warm and loving and bright but the preparation takes hard work, the cooking can become an exercise in precision timing and stress runs under everything like lumpy underlay beneath a pretty carpet.
The script by John Hughes stays in line with all that viewers already know about the Griswold family but then manages to take every common Christmas practice (picking the family tree, putting up the lights, sledding, cooking the turkey) and drain every ounce of comic eggnog it can out of each and every one.
Jeremiah S. Chechik directs and he doesn’t really put a foot wrong. The material is great, it’s elevated by the performers, and Chechik knows just how to balance a little bit of sentiment in amongst all of the laughs and how to make every set-piece work as well as it possibly can.
Clark Griswold is, arguably, the best character that Chevy Chase has ever played and he managed to slide perfectly into the role from the very first movie. Beverly D’Angelo is just as great as Ellen. Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki are great though, it has to be said, more fun is derived from knowing how their careers would take off at a later stage. The same is true of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. Randy Quaid is hilarious once again as Cousin Eddie while John Randolph, William Hickey, E. G. Marshall, Brian Doyle-Murray and everyone else does just enough as they raise chuckles in between the bigger Griswold-centred moments.
There’s at least one problem here, admittedly magnified for comic effect, that viewers will relate to and that’s another part of the appeal of this perennial favourite.
DIRECTOR: JEREMIAH S. CHECHIK
WRITER: JOHN HUGHES
STARS: CHEVY CHASE, BEVERLY D’ANGELO, JULIETTE LEWIS, JOHNNY GALECKI, RANDY QUAID, JOHN RANDOLPH, E. G. MARSHALL, BRIAN DOYLE-MURRAY
RUNTIME: 97 MINS APPROX