Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) dreams of sharing the perfect vacation with his wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron). So they’re all hopping into their brand new vomit green Wagon Queen Family Truckster and driving cross-country to Walley World, “America’s Favorite Family Fun Park”.
Wait a minute. Why aren’t they flying like Ellen wants to? ‘Cause getting there is half the fun, that’s why.
Nothing will stop Clark from completing his “quest for fun”, be it a visit with Ellen’s cousin Catherine (Miriam Flynn) and her crude husband Eddie (Randy Quaid), multiple encounters with a mysterious, red Ferrari-driving woman (Christie Brinkley) or the myriad of mishaps that happen to them since clocking in mile one of their 2,460 venture.
Following the disastrous Class Reunion, the folks at National Lampoon were looking for a worthy followup to their comedy classic Animal House, and struck gold with a short story from the late, great John Hughes (who wrote Class Reunion) that’s based on an ill-fated trip to Disneyland he and his family experienced when he was a boy.
On a personal level, I relate to National Lampoon’s Vacation more than I’d like, and for those that haven’t seen this film, my story does essentially spoil the ending. When my family and I moved up from Florida to Michigan, my Uncle Andy promised to take me to Cedar Point someday. After a couple years, I learned (thanks to the answering machine picking up the conversation between my dad and uncle) that he was taking me there the next day. Naturally, I was psyched. The next day, we made the 3 1/2 to 4 hour trek from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Sandusky, Ohio. We turned a corner and there it was before our eyes. I was witnessing Heaven; cue Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” now. There it was – Raptor, Demon Drop, Magnum XL-200, Blue Streak, Gemini. I was like Belloq peering inside the ark and rejoicing, “It’s beautiful!!!!” We approached the parking booth…
Only to find out it was open exclusively for Honda employees.
Cue Nirvana’s “I Hate Myself and Want to Die”.
We went to a nearby go-kart park instead that day, which is like finally scoring a chance to bang Kate Upton just to have her hand you a nude pic of her to beat-off to.
Don’t worry; suicide watch wasn’t needed. We ended up going, successfully this time, two weeks later.
Like Ghostbusters, Vacation features a winning trifecta of writing, direction and comic acting. Both Harold Ramis and Chevy Chase were already well known names as a screenwriter and an SNL alum, respectively, and though this was only Ramis’s sophomore directing effort, it’s safe to say you still have a solid handle on things when your debut is Caddyshack. The big breakthrough behind the camera here was John Hughes (who had a pretty good year in 1983 between writing this film and Mr. Mom), who’d go on to take the ’80s by storm with Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and the Home Alone franchise.
Vacation, which is based on Hughes’s short story Vacation ’58, is nothing more than a road trip that relies solely on the comic gold cast and one of the most quotable comedy screenplays of the decade to deliver the goods. It’s a testament to the talent of those involved, particularly Ramis and Hughes, that the film never once feels like a short story stretched out too thin. Save a hilariously inspired, obscenity-filled climactic rant from Chase, the humor is rather tame for what many consider to be a “raunchy” R-rated comedy. To be sure, Hughes does sprinkle his script with some beautifully disturbing humor (Jane Krakowski’s “But daddy says I’m the best” moment, and a bit involving a pet dog that you’ll more than likely never see done again), but compared to the many other subsequent road trip comedies (Road Trip, Sex Drive, EuroTrip, etc.) that owe quite a lot to this film, the crude humor here relies less on gross-out gags and more on its subtle jabs.
Though it might not seem that way, the fact that Ramis’s direction disappears into the film shows the genius of his craft (a lot of people seem to forget that this is one of his films). No, it’s not as strong a directing effort as what he’d do with Groundhog Day (not his best overall film, but as far as direction is concerned, it’s the finest job he’s done), but it’s the type of simple film that doesn’t need much from him other than to just hold everything together. As I mentioned in my Caddyshack review, Ramis was often viewed as the “smartest man in the room”, but he never felt the need to go out of his way to prove it. He was perfectly content with sitting back and letting the cast and screenplay outshine his contribution if it meant benefiting the film, and that’s what made him such a smart filmmaker (though we should absolutely give him credit for suggesting Carl Spackler’s “Cinderella Story” speech to Bill Murray).
At the end of the day, the magic of this film lies in the cast, be it a pre-insane Randy Quaid as the crude but well-meaning cousin Eddie who firmly believes that Hamburger Helper does just fine without the hamburger (It’s even better than Tune Helper!), Beverly D’Angelo as the most patient, long-suffering wife in the history of wives and an extended cameo by John Candy as a Walley World security guard.
But this is obviously Chevy Chase’s film, and though he had Caddyshack three years prior to this, his role as Clark Griswold is undoubtedly the one that would go on to define his career, having played the character four times (and a soon-to-be fifth time with Vacation, starring Ed Helms, opening this week). Whether it’s his infatuation over Christie Brinkley’s Ferrari-driving hottie (How can you not crack up during his goofy bologna sandwich dance?), his dumb but admirable in an odd way man-to-man talks with his son (go-to John Hughes guy Anthony Michael Hall in his breakthrough role) or his slow but sure descent into madness as mishap after mishap occurs during their trip, Chase earns every laugh at the expense of Clark’s endearing idiocy, never crossing that line into turning his character into something unbearably obnoxious. Even when it appears he’s finally snapped, we’re still rooting for him to conquer his quest for fun.
One of the most effective cases of the comedic hat trick – director Harold Ramis, screenwriter John Hughes and star Chevy Chase – National Lampoon’s Vacation is as thin on plot as one can get, but it absolutely thrives on Chase’s energetic comic timing and the infinite supply of one-liner gems. Sure, the endless amount of inspired R-rated road trip comedies that followed have wallowed in inferiority, but no matter how bad they might be, they’re not enough to tarnish this film’s legacy.