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Comment: The next time you have one of your movie review outbursts, I’d really appreciate it if you think about the consideration of our kids.
Dusty: What are you talking about?
Director: Harold Ramis
Writers: John Hughes
Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverlyl D’Angelo
Release Date: July 29, 1983 (United States)
Run time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Clark Griswold, wanting to spend more time with his wife Ellen and children Rusty and Audrey, decides to lead the family on a cross-country expedition from the Chicago suburbs to the southern California amusement park Walley World, billed as “America’s Favorite Family Fun Park”. Ellen wants to fly, but Clark insists on driving, so he can bond with his family. He has ordered a new car in preparation for the trip, but the dealer claims that it will not be ready for six weeks. Clark is forced to buy the “Wagon Queen Family Truckster”, an ugly, oversized station wagon, after the car he brought to trade in has been hauled away and crushed.
During the family’s travels, they experience numerous mishaps, such as being tagged by vandals in St. Louis, Missouri. Clark aggravates a bartender in Dodge City, Kansas and is tantalized on numerous occasions by a beautiful young woman driving a flashy red Ferrari 308 GTS.
They stop in Coolidge, Kansas to visit Ellen’s cousin Catherine and her husband Eddie, who foist cranky Aunt Edna and her mean dog Dinky on the Griswolds, asking them to drop her off at her son Norman’s home in Phoenix.
After stopping at a decrepit and dirty campground in South Fork, Colorado for the night, Clark forgets to untie Dinky’s leash from the rear bumper before driving off the next morning, killing the dog. A motorcycle cop pulls the Griswolds over and angrily lectures Clark over animal cruelty, but accepts Clark’s apology. Edna learns of her dog’s death and becomes more irate with Clark. Exiting Colorado, Ellen loses her bag which had her credit cards and Clark reports them as lost.
While Ellen and Clark argue during a drive between Utah and Arizona, they crash and become stranded in the desert near Monument Valley. Clark and Rusty have a bonding experience explaining why Clark wants to take this vacation. After setting off alone in the desert to look for help, Clark eventually reunites with his family, who have been rescued and taken to a local mechanic. The mechanic extorts Clark’s remaining cash only to render the car barely operational. Frustrated, they stop at the Grand Canyon. When Clark is unable to convince a hotel clerk to cash a personal check because his credit cards have mistakenly been reported lost, he raids the cash register behind the clerk’s back and leaves the check.
Leaving, they find that Aunt Edna has died in her sleep. They tie her corpse to the roof of the car, wrapped in a tarpaulin. Discovering that Norman is out of town when they arrive at his home, they attach a note to the corpse and leave it in his backyard. Ellen becomes annoyed at Clark’s hasty, halfhearted attempt at a eulogy.
Overwhelmed by the mishaps they have encountered during the road trip, Ellen and the children want to go back home, but Clark has become obsessed with reaching Walley World and they continue on. After an argument with Ellen, Clark eventually meets the Ferrari-driving blonde at a hotel bar. After convincing the woman that Clark owns the motel chain, he goes skinny-dipping with her in its pool, but they are discovered by the family before anything intimate happens due to Clark’s loud remarks about the cold temperature. Clark eventually tells the woman the truth, and she leaves him understandingly. Clark later lies to Russ while trying to explain himself, explaining that the woman was just a waitress. Ellen forgives Clark and they go skinny-dipping themselves.
Despite the family’s misfortunes, they finally arrive at Walley World the next day only to discover the park closed for the next two weeks for repairs. Finally slipping into madness and realizing that all his efforts have been for nothing, Clark buys a realistic-looking BB gun and demands that park security guard Russ Lasky take them through Walley World. Ellen and the kids follow, attempting to placate Clark. Eventually, an LAPD SWAT team arrives and just as the family is about to be arrested, the park owner Roy Walley appears. Roy understands Clark’s impassioned longing to achieve the perfect vacation, bringing back memories of his own family vacation headaches. He decides not to file criminal charges against the Griswolds and lets the family – along with the SWAT team – enjoy the park as his guests.
A montage of snapshots taken during the trip is shown during the credits, ending with one that shows the Griswolds flying back to Chicago.
National Lampoon’s Vacation is either one of the funniest movies of all time, or a wildly vulgar, offensive, and divisive depiction of selfish American suburbanism. The Griswolds are a family that will either remind you fondly of a highly exaggerated version of something familiar, or they will remind you hatefully of a highly exaggerated version of something familiar. In a lot of respects, this movie is a litmus test for what type of person you are. On balance, I found this movie to be very funny. I am working through what that says about me.
This is the quintessential road trip movie, one of the originators of the entire road trip movie sub-genre, and I think it might still be the best of that sub-genre. Vacation is also one of the best examples of an “everything goes wrong” comedy, striking a great balance between realism and absurdism, early on, allowing the audience to care about and relate to the characters. As the story goes on though, and the catastrophes steadily pile up, the absurdism ratchets up and the movie finishes on an insane climax.
As Clark Griswold laugh-celebrates not having criminal charges filed for forcing his way into Walley World at gunpoint, the audience can laugh-celebrate with him.
I think if you look under the hood of this story, you could probably come up with explanations for what John Hughes was after when he wrote the screenplay for this family road trip story. Are the Griswolds intended to be a negative caricature of Americans, at a time when Reagan was promoting the suburban ideal? Are they anti-heroes in a culture war against normalcy? Maybe. Either way, I think that takes this story too seriously.
Chevy Chase was once one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Clark Griswold might be the character he is eventually most well-remembered for playing. The accolades for this role are deserved because he makes this movie work. His Clark is bumbling, well-intentioned, obnoxious, and still somehow a little charming. His comedic timing is unbelievable. As a result, his descent into madness was a lot of fun to watch. Clark Griswold is a man after the American dream, and despite his best efforts, that dream not only eludes him, it attacks him in every way imaginable as we see his family travel through the western half of the United States. He loses his mind because he refuses to give up. Then, of course, at the end, everything sort of works out magically.
The rest of the cast is great, too, though they had much less to do. Anthony Michael Hall, in one of his earliest roles, plays Rusty Griswold. Beverly D’Angelo was great playing the straight (wo)man to Chase’s zany Clark Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie is also memorable and funny. Christie Brinkley plays the enigmatic “Girl in the Ferrari” showing up more than once alongside the Griswolds as they drive on the highway, and flirting with Clark at every opportunity. We never really learn why she is following them or why she is so doggedly pursuing Clark in particular. Initially I wished that the story had given an explanation, but ultimately I decided that the mystery is better.
This movie is rated R and that rating is mostly for language (there is a lot of bad language throughout.) However, there are a couple of other “incidents” within the movie that make it particularly inappropriate for children.
- The Griswolds tie Aunt Edna’s dog to the car bumper when loading up, but then forget to untie the dog when they drive off. As an audience, we only see the empty leash presented to Clark by the State Trooper who pulls him over, presumably hundreds of miles later, but we know that they dragged the dog to death. The dog was portrayed as mean and vicious, to soften this blow, but taht was *dark* humor.
- After Aunt Edna dies in the car, the kids don’t want to ride next to a dead body, so Clark wraps her in a tarp and ties her to the car’s roof. We see her strapped to the car roof, in the rain, when they arrive with her corpse in Phoenix. Then after a half-hearted prayer, they leave her on her son’s doorstep, with a note, and drive away. This was a scene that forces you to laugh because you do not otherwise know how to process what is happening.
So, yeah, overall I thought Vacation was irreverent, nostalgia-laden, and hilarious but I would not recommend it to everyone.
If you’ve seen National Lampoon’s Vacation, leave a comment and let me know what you thought.