Wednesday 2 December 2020

Holiday road: "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation"

Certain Christmas movies get revived year after year: It's a Wonderful Life, Gremlins, even Elf, for some reason. Here's one that doesn't, perhaps understandably. Returning to UK cinema screens for the first time since its original release in April (!) of 1990, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation serves as a marker of how American movies, and the National Lampoon brand, had changed in the decade after 1978's Animal House. 1983's original National Lampoon's Vacation was still trading in the boobs-curses-and-pratfalls formula that had served Porky's, Caddyshack and the ten dozen other movies Animal House foisted upon the world. This PG-13 follow-up, written and produced by John Hughes and directed by Jeremiah Chechik (fresh off Hall and Oates videos, bound for a career reckoning with 1998's The Avengers), was pitching squarely for the multiplex. The Griswolds, as rejoined here, are a prime-time sitcom-ready family unit, blundering through various festive misadventures: well-meaning but hapless patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase, Hollywood's most flavourless leading man) a Homer Simpson without the writing staff, wife Ellen (Beverly d'Angelo) obliged to play patient second fiddle, on the grounds it's dad who best defines what a family is. The casting now appears to reinforce this TV-adjacent feel: the couple's son Rusty is played by a cherubic young Johnny Galecki, headed for Roseanne, The Big Bang Theory and funnier material, while the Griswolds' Evian-chugging yuppie neighbour is immediately recognisable as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elaine from Seinfeld, hiding some way down the credits. The Griswolds' oldest Audrey, on the other hand, is played by Juliette Lewis, and from the opening drive into the frozen wastes to haul back North America's biggest Christmas tree, she already looks so over this; within two years, she'd be giving herself up to big bad Bob de Niro in Scorsese's Cape Fear.

That the bit with the tree and the bit with the turkey (solid sight gags both) recur on holiday-movie clipshows speaks less to their quality than to how broadly unmemorable the rest of this Vacation is. If ever there was a movie to wrap presents to - a film so sketchily constructed as to actively benefit from incomplete attention - this would be it. With lockdown restrictions easing, they may let you take scissors and Sellotape into the Everyman this weekend. Either way, its comedy now appears oddly neutered, encapsulated by Chase's sputtering incoherence when faced with an attractive shopgirl. The Ridgemont High-referencing fantasy she later inspires is, much like Clark Griswold's last-reel chainsaw wrangling, trace evidence of an impulse a work this mainstream knows it can't really act upon. In place of comic transgression, we get passive-aggressive slapstick that looks like Hughes limbering up for the following year's Home Alone. Those of us with a low tolerance for stress in comedies will find the extended sequence in which Clark staples fairy lights to the roof of his home more agonising than amusing; worse follows when he over-waxes his sledge (sounds like a euphemism; isn't), though Chechik's artless green-screen inserts at least reassure us Chase wasn't in any immediate personal danger. When not being spottily funny, it's just plain sappy: Clark sobbing in front of old home movies isn't the last place where Hughes pauses the fun, like a charity insert in the Comic Relief live show, to insist the real meaning of Christmas is... family. Did the rowdy, horny brats of the late 1970s really grow up this quickly, and this lamely? What they left behind, in this instance, was throwaway, self-pitying boomer crap that proves semi-enlightening to revisit, if only to demonstrate that a) Hughes was never the godhead of modern screenwriting some still maintain, and b) how easily entertained our forefathers must have been. (The grand finale involves a dog-versus-squirrel chase.) Basic cable rotation may have hoodwinked our American chums into considering this some endlessly rewatchable seasonal classic; in return, we might consider exporting one of those feature-length Christmas TV specials starring Lee Mack and Mark Addy as warring neighbours.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday, and is available to stream via Prime Video. With thanks to The Celluloid Sorceress (@SorceressOfFilm) for the correction.

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