Friday, July 16, 2010

Christmas in July: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

I'm not sure how long it had been since the last time I saw this movie, but it definitely was a number of years ago. Christmas Vacation is the kind of thing that I probably watched bits and pieces of multiple times while in middle school and maybe high school as well, and it had a place as a vague fond memory. But movies like that, where you remember the feeling of goodwill more than any specifics, often fail to hold up, and I worried that looking at Christmas Vacation now I'd find it lacking, a dumb comedy that amused my (only slightly) less sophisticated younger self.

But no, this is a genuinely funny, highly entertaining movie that completely holds up. I've been greatly enjoying Chevy Chase's little comeback on Community, and this movie reminds me once again of what a fantastic physical comedian he is. Chase's best moments as hapless dad Clark Griswold come almost entirely in dialogue-free bits, sometimes whole set pieces (his struggles to avoid killing himself while stringing up Christmas lights on the roof of his house) and sometimes just little touches (the way his fingers stick to everything after he's been covered in sap from the gigantic Griswold family Christmas tree). Chase gives a marvelous performance in a movie that's sentimental but bleak, shot through with writer John Hughes' trademark bittersweet view of the American suburbs.

And because this movie doesn't feature the Griswolds going anywhere, unlike the other Vacation movies, Hughes is really able to play up the suburban claustrophobia, the tyranny of Christmas bonuses and in-laws and home add-ons, and the way that the ambition for the perfect suburban life is both stifling and rewarding. Mostly, though, we just watch Clark get beaten down for 90 minutes until he can't take it anymore, and then get a tiny ray of hope that is enough to sustain him. Chase makes whitebread Clark with his dopey old-fashioned ideas about Christmas into a hero of sorts, a sympathetic and lovable character even while he's acting like a buffoon.

Not everything works, of course - director Jeremiah S. Chechik has a tendency to overemphasize certain jokes (do we really need a "boing!" sound effect when Clark realizes he forgot to bring a saw to cut down the Christmas tree?), and some of the bits are recycled from past Vacation movies (Clark once again fantasizes about a mysterious beautiful woman). But overall this is a joy to watch, a great Christmas movie with just the right balance of cynicism and sentiment.

The True Meaning of Christmas: It's the American dream.

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