Movies of My Yesterdays: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

I recall this movie coming into the house through a joint garage sale with my aunt’s family. Or rather, I remember seeing the tape at one of the garage sales, and then I remember finding it in our collection months or years later. I don’t know why it didn’t interest me for a long time, but I think I didn’t get to it until I was in my 20s or late teens. I can’t recall now if the portion I saw on TV (I mainly remember hearing “Mele Kalikimaka” for the first time) got me interested, or if I was just going through the video collection and connected it with the Christmas movie everybody liked and decided to watch it for that reason. I’m a little surprised I didn’t seek it out when I was in my significant “all the traditions” phase, but I think I would’ve been scandalized at the time if I had.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Hughes Entertainment 1989.

Clark Griswold and his family is hosting Christmas for the extended family for the first time, and Clark is determined to make it perfect. He marches his wife Ellen and their children deep into the forest to find The Perfect Tree, he blankets the house in 25,000 lights that he can’t get working, and packs every room with family members, including the son and daughter of his wife’s uninvited cousin Eddie, who drove the rusty trailer they live in to join the family. Clark is also starting to wonder where his Christmas bonus check is, which he badly needs to cover the deposit he already laid out to install a swimming pool.

I seem to recall that before I first saw the movie,I didn’t think the poster was very much help in understanding what it’s about, but the problem is that it’s an extremely episodic movie that doesn’t have a more significant overarching plot than “Clark tries to make a perfect Christmas for his extended family”, which is hard to convey on a poster. Just about every scene is a vignette of a crazy family Christmas, but the lights and the bonus check are the most consistent throughlines. So a lighting accident it is.

While it’s a Chevy Chase vehicle with many scenes stolen by Randy Quaid, this is the first time I noticed that Clark’s son Rusty is played by a young Johnny Galecki, best known for The Big Bang Theory. Even at the young age, there were moments where I recognized his acting style. My wife also pointed out that Beverly D’Angelo has a strong resemblance to Amy Pohler. I don’t know if any of the elderly uncles and grandparents are notable actors, but many of them are also doing very memorable character work.

This movie is somehow pitched to the point of absurdity yet relatable to the point it at times feels almost like a set of generic scenes of the Christmas experience. John Hughes may have hit a bigger classic with Home Alone, but I think this is better at creating the adult experience of Christmas. I suspect that there are people for whom it’s so relatable, it’s too stressful, like my experience watching The Long, Long Trailer so soon after driving a trailer across the country. It may not be a Christmas staple to me, but it’s always welcome. Because while we have plenty of opportunities to remember warmth and generosity at Christmas, it’s also just a real catharsis to have a laugh at the hassle we impose on ourselves too.

Fathers’ Day

Fathers' Day. Silver Pictures 1997.
Fathers’ Day. Silver Pictures 1997.

Before watching the movie:

I grew up on AladdinFlubber , Jumanji, and Bicentennial Man all came out when I was the right age for them. I rediscovered Hook at a well-developed age between childhood and adulthood. Mork and Mindy may have been the first grown-up TV show I discovered on my own, but even if it wasn’t, it struck a chord with me the other possibilities didn’t. Robin Williams was the first person I did a search for in the library system and I pulled several movies from that search, a strategy I only applied so earnestly to two other actors. Having a blog focused on catching up with movies I haven’t seen led me to check off more of his filmography. So when news of his death came, I had some trouble finding a movie to review in his honor. It’s not so much that there are no movies left that I haven’t seen, but most of them are bleak dramas or too recent.

In the outpouring of love for the man I saw online in the last few weeks, Dead Poets’ Society seems to be very highly regarded, perhaps his most inspirational film. I indeed have not seen it and will certainly be getting to it soon, but I wanted to remember him with a proper comedy of the sort that there’s hardly anything left.

So here’s Father’s Day, a nearly forgotten movie about two men who have both been led to believe they’re the father of an ex-girlfriend’s runaway son, for the purpose of getting both of them to track him down. Sounds like a road movie with two giants of comedy at odds with each other. Let’s have some fun.

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