The Third Day of Christmas: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (Jeremiah Chechik, 1989) exemplifies and perhaps even helped to birth one of the most popular and enduring Christmas sub-genres: the family comedy. Perhaps the lasting connection with Christmas stems from its fulfilment of so many of the criteria that make a typical Christmas movie: the good cheer and high spirits, the ideology and message of family unity, and, most importantly of all, the familial conflict that leads to the comfortable, inevitable resolution of a happy ending. In fact, more than any other genre, the family comedy recreates our own experiences at Christmas. It reflects and ridicules them in a heightened way that allows us, as an audience, to both laugh at our own traditions, and take comfort in the fact that some families have it worse than our own, and even they can all kiss and make up in the end. It has become the archetype of mainstream Christmas cinema precisely because it makes us aware of our Christmas values whilst simultaneously reinforcing them.
Despite this intrinsic Christmas link, the sub-genre hardly ever produces films that are anything other than complete crap, and, unfortunately, Christmas Vacation is not the rare exception. Chechik’s film focuses on the Griswold family in their third outing after National Lampoon’s Vacation (Harold Ramis, 1983) and National Lampoon’s European Vacation (Amy Heckerling, 1985), which, despite their thrillingly original titles, I mercifully have not seen. Father and husband Clark (Chevy Chase) is a family man, determined to make this Christmas a memorable one for his family, and dreaming of putting a swimming pool into his yard with the sizable Christmas bonus he relies on from his boring office job. Of course, Clark is as clumsy as he is ambitious and, much like fathers in comedies the world over, he is the cause of most of the hijinks that ensue. And if you can say one thing about Christmas Vacation, it is that it has a truly committed relationship with stupidity. It never misses an opportunity to do a dumb gag. Never. Ever. Ever. For the first 10 minutes, this is bearable. You can roll your eyes and chuckle pitifully. But the movie just wears you down with its relentlessly terrible slapstick, something perhaps best illustrated by a scene in which Clark gets stuck in his loft. When Clark first stands on a loose plank in this scene and it predictably springs up and hits him in the face, it is sort of funny. Then when he turns around and immediately does it again you sigh. And then, when he turns around and the stick quite literally slaps you in the face for the third time in about 10 seconds, you begin to lose the will to live.
All this in spite of a talented cast that includes Chase, an old hand at these sorts of movies, Randy Quaid (or should I say Academy Award nominee Randy Quaid), and a 14 year-old Johnny Galecki, who shows inklings of the talents that made him so good in The Big Bang Theory (2006-2019). This contributes to what has been a running theme in my 12 Days of Christmas reviews so far, in that each movie has arrived with an appealing concept, only for the novelty to wear off and the film to show itself as disappointingly thin as it stumbles through its runtime. Christmas Vacation might be the worst of the bunch so far, though, because I was actively willing it to end long before Clark stands smiling outside his house, having saved Christmas in some silly, convoluted and not particularly satisfying way. Perhaps if I had seen the movies that precede it and been introduced to the characters in a more conventional way, so that I was invested in them as they celebrate Christmas, I might have had a better experience with Christmas Vacation. However, as a stand-alone work of cinema, I cannot recommend avoiding this movie strongly enough.
At time of writing, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.