Jacob's Favorite Christmas Films: #2. "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989)
You know a movie is massively influential when it's entire third act has become the premise of almost every Christmas comedy that followed it.
I'm not saying that National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation invented the "bad family Christmas dinner" scene that borders into madness, but it definitely made it into a formula. The number of Christmas comedies I've seen over the years that ripped from this film's playbook is almost unbelievable, with one of the films on this list nakedly taking from it as well (Krampus). But in this one respect, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation reminds me of something, something that might strike you as unusual.
It reminds me of John Carpenter's Halloween.
Not in the literal sense that both films are the same, but in how both films have been copied less successfully. Halloween might have been the mainstream moment where "slasher film rules" were born, but Halloween itself doesn't completely adhere to those "rules." What we perceive to be the "slasher formula" definitely starts at Halloween, but the film itself manages to exist outside of that formula. And National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is exactly the same in that way. It might have created the playbook of "bad family Christmas dinner," but its imitators missed the key parts that made the original concept great.
And that's only one third of this whole thing. I always forget at least one funny scene in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation before I watch it. Sometimes I forget the entire opening animated credits with Santa Claus getting decimated at the Griswold house. Sometimes I forget when Clark Griswold meets an unbelievably beautiful women selling clothes at a department store. There are so many jokes packed in here, and almost all of them relatable because of how deeply they dig into the misery of the holiday.
This film also represents Chevy Chase at the height of his comedic powers. He was a true MVP of 1980s comedy, but National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation might be his finest hour. From the impeccable timing of his line delivery to his slapstick scenes, they're all damn near perfect in execution. Only a recurring gag involving a Friday the 13th reference feels superfluous and kind of lame, but even that gag pays off unexpectedly.
The other MVPs of the film come in the form of Beverly D'Angelo as Ellen Griswold and Johnny Galecki as Rusty Griswold. Beverly D'Angelo has always been the perfect foil to Clark throughout the other "Vacation" films, but here she becomes front and center at some of the film's greatest gags. Johnny Galecki is even more shocking in this film, seeing that he was literally thirteen when this was filmed. Before he became a television superstar for The Big Bang Theory, he had great comedic timing, especially when he's working off of Chevy Chase.
But I can't help but veer this review back into the subject of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation's final third. It's seriously an incredible sequence that literally takes up an entire thirty minutes. That stretch of time is crucial to how the scene builds itself. The turkey being cooked too long and dried out is a funny gag on its own, but the total silence of slowly watching the whole house trying to eat the turkey is hilarious. The sequence builds too lengths so extreme that once a SWAT Team bursts into the house, it doesn't feel like a stretch but a natural evolution of the scene.
The film actually feels like a live-action cartoon throughout, amping up the visuals and the sound design in ways that should feel cheap but manage to land with shocking precision. That was always the M.O. for the "Vacation" films, but this films turns those gags all the way up to eleven.
There's so much more talk about with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, from a standout comedy performance from Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, the snooty neighbors next to the Griswolds, Brian Doyle-Murray as a slimy corporate monster (incidentally, it just dawned on me that Brian Doyle-Murray is also in Scrooged, so congratulations to Brian Doyle-Murray for making it into more than one film on this list), one of the most memorable uses of Bing Crosby's "Mele Kalikimaka" in a film ever, and countless other moments. It's a film built out of the kind of gags that usually only work this well in sketch comedy, but somehow it all fits together into a coherent overarching narrative.
Most surprising of all is how sincere it all ends up becoming. Despite the total insanity that it inspires in Chevy Chase's performance as Clark Griswold, you can't help but wish that his vision of an "old fashioned Christmas" actually works out. Even though the scene starts and ends with a joke, the part where Clark watches old Super 8MM films of his old family Christmas is genuinely sweet and acts as a moral anchor for the whole story. The movie even confronts this notion and suggests that maybe these memories aren't quite as wonderful as Clark remembers when his father remarks that he "had a lot of help from Jack Daniels" to get through the holidays. But the nostalgia still stands intact and works as a binding force.
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation arguably stands near the top of not only the best Christmas comedies, but the best Christmas films as well. Every year that I've ever thought about my favorite Christmas films, I come really close to giving it my number one slot. However, there's one movie that always manages to just barely pull ahead of it, and it's probably not hard to guess what that final movie is considering that one of the holiday's heaviest hitters hasn't been mentioned yet. All I'll say about that is to check in on Christmas day to see what film takes the number one slot. The only other thing I'll say about the final movie is this:
It isn't Black Christmas.