Reeling in the Classics: “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” delivers unconventional holiday cheer


Photo credit/ Jennifer Flynn

Staff Writer Brianna Kohut discusses if “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” could be made today.

Since it’s the holiday season and Christmas is just a few short days away, let’s discuss a movie fit for the season. While there is no shortage of Christmas movies with inappropriate elements or scenes that wouldn’t fly in 2022, I’d like to discuss one that has both and yet is regarded more and more as a Christmas classic with each passing year: 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” “Christmas Vacation” is a film that is quickly becoming a must-watch movie every holiday season for many families, including mine.

Loosely based on John Hughes’ short story “Christmas ‘59” that was, fittingly, published in the “National Lampoon” comedy magazine. The movie was also produced and written by Hughes. As the man is known for edgy, yet relevant teen movies from the 80’s, like “Ferris Buller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club,” the end result is a movie with a distinctly sharpened sense of humor for one based around the holidays. But it fits well for the Griswold family-introduced earlier in 1983’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation”-who always seem to have misfortune and bad luck come their way when they need it the least. It all comes together to paint a picture that is far more true to how large family Christmas gatherings go than most movies, even if it is a touch inappropriate or exaggerated at times.

The movie follows the Griswold family, especially the two parents Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), during the holiday season as they attempt to have an absolutely perfect Christmas. Unfortunately, the many members of their extended family arrive, including Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), who does so unannounced, and the chaos that that brings makes the “perfect Christmas” goal ever more challenging to reach.

Further complicating things are the many problems Clark encounters, including waiting for his Christmas bonus check (that he finally “gets” in a famous scene) and the struggle to make the countless lights on his house turn on. I have not even mentioned the struggles to find the perfect tree, Clark getting locked in the attic, Eddie’s unintentional annoyingness, and cats, dogs, and squirrels running amok. There are a few heartwarming moments, and the movie ends happily, but the majority of the picture is a hilarious, if darkly so, affair.

The budget for this movie was the highest out of the ones we’ve talked about so far, being around $25 million, but it more than made back its budget with a grossing of $73.3 million at the box office. It was actually number 2 at the box office that December behind only “Back to the Future Part 2”. Though not the highest scoring with critics (managing a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes) nor the highest with audiences (with a 7.5 out of 10 on IMDB), the film has been regarded more and more throughout the years as a genuine holiday classic. The movie is screened exclusively on cable network AMC every year as part of their “Best Christmas Ever” programming and is well-regarded by fans of the original “Vacation” movie. So why the huge critic-audience dissonance, even today when it’s almost as much of a holiday season must-watch as “Home Alone” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas?” The answer probably lies in the inappropriate material that is sprinkled here and there throughout the movie.

The movie opens with quite a good one, with a road rage incident between Clark and the occupants of a beat-up pickup truck that eventually ends in the truck fleeing and Clark getting the family stuck under a tractor trailer. During this scene, Clark throws up a middle finger multiple times to provoke the opposite party and it all perfectly establishes that this is NOT your typical Christmas movie. Speaking of rage, there is quite a bit of swearing in this movie, including the f-bomb used in two key scenes to hammer in just how much insanity is going on. Again, not stuff you would see in something like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But this is only scratching the surface of what else happens.

There’s quite a bit of animal cruelty in this movie, though most of it happens off-screen and the movie was indeed given the Humane Society certificate for “no animals harmed.” The “fried cat” scene is probably the most infamous and, no pun intended, shocking moment in the whole film, but there’s also the tussle with the squirrel that ends up sneaking into the house via the new tree Clark cuts down. He explicitly states he will capture it in his coat and then smash it with a hammer, though fortunately that fate never comes to pass. Finally, there is the whole deal with the dog Snot vomiting under the table during dinner that alludes to his owner Eddie feeding him scraps.

There’s also Clark’s occasional fantasies about a rather well-endowed woman from a department store, culminating in one themed around the new pool that involves her stripping down and skinny dipping, when he’s already married. Definitely something you wouldn’t see in “Home Alone”.

Needless to say, there is no shortage of problematic content, let alone for a Christmas movie, and it’s easy to see why some critics may not enjoy it. But I, personally, think that it works in the movie’s favor. A lot of Christmas movies that try to have a “bite” to them like this one do tend to come off as immature rather than adult, but this movie succeeds in that regard. Sure, between the animal cruelty and the completely honest and raw portrayal of what celebrating Christmas with a huge family is like, it probably would never be made today as it is, but that’s the beauty of it. I have had quite a few friends tell me this movie is the closest cinema has ever gotten to recreating their Christmases, and considering just how many ways people celebrate the holidays that is a remarkable feat.

The movie isn’t perfect, to be sure, but when it comes to must-watch holiday movies it could certainly stand to be far more well regarded despite its problems. The acting is superb, particularly from Chase as Clark as he descends further and further into insanity, as well as the writing, which is to be expected from Hughes. The plot bounces from snippet to snippet almost effortlessly and the few touching moments-like Clark’s talk with little Ruby Sue-add heart to an otherwise bleak take on the season. The opening credits are also fantastic, a cute little cartoon that shows even Santa can’t escape the Griswolds’ misfortune (accompanied by a great song, too).

Overall, the movie is quite underrated by critics and deserves a second look. Just be careful if you’re a lover of animals.

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