Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: Christmas Vacation

Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik. Written by John Hughes. 1989.

Christmas Vacation is one of the most American of Christmas movies, and not just because Aunt Bethany manages to recite both the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. Rather it's American insofar as it captures what has for decades now been the American father's quest for the perfect family Christmas of presents, good food, and festive tradition. This third entry in the Vacation series again follows the hapless but well-meaning Clark W. Griswold as he attempts against ill fortune, yuppie neighbors, selfish relatives, cheapskate bosses, and his own ineptitude to pull off the Griswold Family Christmas.

The real star here is John Hughes script which keeps the Yuletide vexation of the American everyman running through every scene. Whether it's the jerk pacing you on the highway and souring the family's car-ride caroling, your kids complaining about the house guests, or the neighbors' contempt for your holiday decorations that troubles you, Christmas Vacation knows your frustration. Some of these scenes are played for broad comedy, but some remind us how hurtful simple slights can be, such as the in-laws' mocking Clark's efforts.

Not all of the scenes hinge on curmudgeonry, though, and some of the movie's best gags are Clark's fumbling attempts to decorate the house, a task which sounds trivial until you go to put up Santa. The scenes of Clark festooning the house with hundreds of strands of lights only to be outdone by one overlooked switch and his subsequent attack on the lawn reindeer are infamous, but one quickie late in the movie is my favorite. Here, after most of the season's damage has been done, Clark is on the precipice of hysteria. As he prepares to chop down his own tree from the lawn to replace the Official Griswold Family fir that Uncle Lewis flambéed, Clark heads down the stairs with his chainsaw and in stepping down he notices the wobbly rail post. With Chevy Chase's classic straight face Clark fires up the chainsaw and lops the post right off, declaring afterwards with pride, "I fixed the newel post!"

Probably my favorite scene overall, though, combines Hughes' affection for the beleaguered father and plain old physical comedy. Here, Clark's oafish cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) has arrived unannounced with his family in their dilapidated motor home. Sipping some egg nog the surprise guest begins to fidget with the Christmas Pyramid and promptly destroys it with Clark looking on in suppressed horror before he fumbles in vain to re-attach the delicate fins. Now Eddie isn't a bad guy, in fact he has a good heart, but his arrival has just  thrown a huge monkey wrench into Clark's plans and he doesn't realize it at all. In fact, that's what everyone does, including Clark himself by his own stubbornness. The difference for Clark is that he's in charge of Christmas and he has to pull it off for everyone.

Which eventually he does despite himself and despite everyone's foibles because of a few pointed reminders from his father and some old home movies which remind him of what matters. These are nice little Hughes touches which hit the sweet spot between serious and sappy, just enough to give an honest heart to the movie and ground the slapstick in something meaningful. The finale is famous for being over the top, but it actually amplifies the plot's resolution: once Clark realizes that he has overreacted and learns to rejoice simply in togetherness, who cares what happens? Everything else rips loose then, SWAT raids and gas explosions included. It's appropriate, though, that the father who suffered much on land and in snow to keep Christmas together gets the final triumphal words: he did it.

No comments:

Post a Comment