a critiQal film review National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

Plot: Accompanied by their children, Clark Griswold (Chase) and his wife, Ellen (D'Angelo), are driving from Illinois to a California amusement park. As Clark increasingly fixates on a beautiful woman driving a sports car (Brinkley), the Griswolds deal with car problems and the death of a family member. They reach Los Angeles, but, when Clark worries that the trip is being derailed again, he acts impulsively to get his family to the park.

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Chevy Chase was a major funnyman back in the 80’s. With starring roles in such classics as Caddyshack, Fletch (1985), Spies Like Us (1985) and Three Amigos, he ruled the comedy roost. But, arguably, his most iconic role came when he took his family on a road trip to Wally World in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

With 2 sequels rounding out the 80’s for Chevy (and another sequel in ’97), National Lampoon’s Vacation started something special for Chevy and his family. Even to the point where he and his on-screen wife, Beverly D’Angelo reunited for a HomeAway commercial in 2010. With the new reboot/sequel Vacation (2015) popular in 2015, it seems like the Griswolds have definitely cemented their place in movie history.

What is about this dysfunctional family that has endeared them to the public for so long? We decided to find out by going back to the film that started it all, National Lampoon’s Vacation. I remember watching this when I was younger and thinking it was hilarious (obviously I wasn’t alone). But, would time have tarred this family’s journey to Wally World more than I had expected, or would this journey remain as funny today?

Chevy Chase is spot on as bumbling dad Clark Griswold. While he was able to bring oddball characters like Fletch and the like to life, he just seemed so at ease as Clark in National Lampoon’s Vacation, it’s almost like he isn’t acting at all. He just seems to be exactly what he is trying to portray: a bumbling dad with good intentions of pulling his family together with a road trip.

Beverly D’Angelo, as his wife, also does a good job in National Lampoon’s Vacation. The arguments between her, Clark and the kids seems natural and un-forced, and something later National Lampoon films (and any film centered around a dysfunctional family) should pay heed to. She’s the dutiful wife, and, while not as strong of a character as the female leads of today, still an integral part of the film. Her chemistry with Chevy seems natural, and they make a good on-screen couple.

The kids (who would be replaced through each subsequent sequel) work well together in National Lampoon’s Vacation, too. Anthony Michael Hall (Sixteen Candles (1984)) is an old pro at this type of thing, and he leads Dana Barron through the murky waters of dysfunctionality with ease. His odd “father son talks” with his bumbling dad Chevy are both funny and a bit poignant, and brief highlights of the film.

With such a strong center to the film, National Lampoon’s Vacation is able to take this family through some rather horrendous turns without losing it’s audience. Even animal abuse, the death of a relative and criminal acts during the trip don’t tear the audience from the bond they form with this family.

That bond, however, is sorely tested by Clark’s adulterous mindset when he meets Christie Brinkley on the trip. While this seemed comical in the 80’s, the sad popularity of adultery these days makes it seem quite different these days. Back then, it was funny. Now, viewers may feel dismay at Clark’s feeble attempts at breaking up the family unit. It’s glossed over pretty quickly when he’s found out, and his wife, oddly, reacts positively to the whole experience, but it’s still a mark on the film that would have been better left out.

While the solid acting by the family unit is still a strong base for National Lampoon’s Vacation, some of the jokes fall much flatter these days, and the movie isn’t quite as enjoyable as it was back in the 80’s. Sure, it will probably still generate a chuckle or two, but the hilarity that seemed to imbibe the film back then has gotten lost somewhere over the years.

Back then, National Lampoon’s Vacation probably would have gotten somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 stars. Nowadays, it’s barely hanging on to 3. Hopefully, time won’t further degrade this iconic memory of my childhood…but, alas, it usually does.

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