Christmas: Christmas Vacation (1989)

Unlike most Christmas classics, Christmas Vacation captures not our hopes for what the holiday could be and mean, but what it all too often is. For though the film is a mad farce, each year I watch it, it seems a more and more accurate depiction of my life during Christmastime.

Story-wise, Christmas Vacation is pretty simple, nothing extending beyond the title’s scope. The Griswold family, which consists of Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and their children Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki), are staying home for the holidays. Both sets of grandparents will visit. Clark is dead-set on having a wonderful, traditional Christmas, but, of course, nothing goes according to plan. Worst of all, it looks like Clark’s year-end bonus might not show up in time, or even at all. Then Randy Quaid shows up with his family, as the crazy cousin (“He was a huge, beastly, bulging man”).

This familiar storyline allows John Hughes’ screenplay to poke fun at most every aspect of the modern North American Christmas. Family visits, the holiday work environment, gift shopping, sledding, and an expedition into the wilderness to obtain the perfect Christmas tree are both the butt of good-natured jokes and the target of some pretty biting satire. We mostly get broad humour and well-done slapstick, but Hughes peppers the script with some great, dark throw-away lines, such as when the police commander says, “That’s pretty low mister. If I had a rubber hose . . .”

One of the best scenes is when the grandparents arrive. The sound of the door bell hangs in the air, portending the event, and then the storm hits: a flurry of greetings, face-pinchings, and complaints about health. Director Jeremiah Chechik captures the event with handheld close-ups, grotesque angles, and fast cuts in order to convey the chaos. His direction overall is nothing special or fancy, and he generally lets the actors and action guide things, but scenes like this show that Chechik knows how to use style to complement the humour when necessary.

At the centre of the film is Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold, the earnest family patriarch, who wants nothing more than to have, as he puts it, a good old-fashioned family Christmas. Chevy Chase’s Clark is a wonderful comic creation. He can be goofy but also capable, earnestly sentimental but also bitingly sardonic. Clark’s the butt of a lot of the jokes, but he also delivers a number of great lines. I particularly enjoy his rivalry with their yuppie neighbours, and his freakout late in the film is priceless. (I love how he drinks the eggnog with a crazed smile, muttering to himself, “It’s good, it’s good.”) At one point in the film Ellen tells Clark that he always builds things up in his head so much that nothing can ever meet his expectations. I for one can really identify with Clark, with his desire for the perfect Christmas and his history of never achieving it.

Christmas Vacation is very funny, pretty smart, and light on the blubber or syrup, unlike most holiday movies (even the recent holiday classic, Elf, descends into sap at the end). If the movie has a message, it would seem to be, accept the madness, and just roll with it, or you’re never going to have a great Christmas.

8 out of 10

Christmas Vacation (1989, USA)

Directed by Jeremiah Chechik; written by John Hughes; starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, and Randy Quaid.