This year marks the 30th anniversary of road trip-from-hell comedy, National Lampoon’s Vacation. Now fully etched into the pop culture psyche, it was the film’s sequel which initially made more of an impression over here, proving to be a colossal hit right in the middle of the home rental boom. The sequel’s humour traded in broad European stereotypes rather than the funnier observational routines of the first film, but proved popular enough to spawn a further two sequels, a TV movie spin-off and a recent online short. Predictably, there’s also talk of the series being given a reboot of sorts, with Ed Helms taking the lead as a now grown-up Griswold son, Rusty (he’ll be the fifth actor to inhabit the role if he signs on).
Vacation began life as a written piece in the National Lampoon magazine – an early precursor to satirical online publication, The Onion. Written by the film’s eventual scriptwriter and 80’s Judd Apatow equivalent, John Hughes, it was loosely based in his own memories of a disastrous family trip to Disneyland. Adhering very closely to his original story (included using the infamous ‘dog bumper’ incident) Hughes crafted the tale of a well-mentioning but hapless father (Chevy Chase) who takes his supportive, but exasperated wife Ellen (a pre-buxom Beverly D’Angelo) and apathetic teenage son and daughter on an epic, cultural-heavy, cross-country trip intended to culminate in a visit to a famous West Coast theme park Walley World (Disney stand-in).
Unsurprisingly, Clark’s carefully mapped-out plans fall apart almost instantly, when, pre-journey, he is given the wrong car order by a feckless car salesman (American Pie mainstay, Eugene Levy) while his old motor is hurriedly crushed. The trip itself is a catalogue of disasters. Clark misses the flyover at St. Louis and ends up in a run-down part of town, where the family’s atrocious new car is vandalised (the film’s only objectionable scene). They make an extremely ill-advised visit to Ellen’s Cousin Eddie (a hilarious Randy Quaid) and his backwater family, getting lumbered with a cantankerous old aunt and her vicious dog who are hitching a ride to Arizona. Throughout the slow dissolution of the holiday, Clark precariously clings on to that last vestige of family togetherness, before the aforementioned theme park fiasco finally tips him over the edge.
One of the reasons why Vacation has endured is at its heart, it’s the story about a man desperate to give his family the best holiday possible. However extreme and ridiculous the situations which befall the Griswolds, they never feel overly-buffoonish, nor do things descend into puerility and excessive gross-out for the sake of a cheap laugh. Director Harold Ramis (who would later go on make the bona fide comedy classic, Groundhog Dog) has an assured grip on the material, managing to keep things (relatively) grounded, and relying on his cast to deliver some great character work.
Although sadly renowned more for his insufferable off-screen bullying antics nowadays, Chase was an appealing, fully-fledged star back then, and he’s completely at the top of his game as Clark. One (improvised) moment where the actor dances seductively with a sandwich in his hand is beautiful in its comic simplicity, and perfectly illustrates his buffoonish everyman persona that really connected with fans at that time. D’Angelo also displays some sharp comedic chops (watch her innocently appeal to a cop towards the end of the film, “we’re not a violent family, this is our first gun”), and there’s always a joy in seeing the late John Candy crop up as a bookish security guard during the Walley World takeover. A fully-deserving shout out goes to the fatally underrated Quaid, glorious as the beer-swilling, screamingly white trash cousin, hosting the world’s grottiest BBQ and offering Clark a pair of ugly white PVC slip-on’s as a parting gift (“Ohh Eddie, you shouldn’t have”).
But there’s something else which makes Vacation special, and that’s viewing 80s US culture via the road movie – a genre that had rarely been given a comedic twist before then. The Americana-style postcard montage opening credits (accompanied by a rollicking, hugely memorable theme tune from Fleetwood Mac’s Lyndsey Buckingham) immediately offers a tantalising taste of that fabled land. There are also some lovely era-defining moments throughout the film, not least the appearance of Clark’s distractions, The Girl in the Ferrari (played with customary blandness by 80’s supermodel and former Mrs. Billy Joel, Christie Brinkley). As an impressionable 12 year-old those chintzy motel suites, kitsch landmarks and expansive locations the Griswolds stumble through were every bit as intriguing and exotic as the fantasy worlds conjured up by the Amblin dream factory.
Inevitably, owing to its age, the film has dated a little (the aforementioned St. Louis incident would never have made it past a first draft in this age) but Vacation remains incredibly fun, with an acute understanding of the family dynamic on the road (who hasn’t been treated to their dad’s shaky attempts at imparting geographic wisdom on them during long family trips, or an excruciating, impromptu sing-a-long?). All together now, “Who’s the moosiest moose we know?”
The Ultimate Vacation Collection is available on Blu-ray today.