Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, John Candy, Christie Brinkley
Screenplay: John Hughes
98 mins. Rated R.
Happy Father’s Day! I was wracking my brain about great cinematic fathers, ones that deserved to be recognized on such a special day as this, and while there were a number of contenders, there’s really no way I can avoid talking about the best of the best in terms of film daddies: Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase, Caddyshack, Panda vs. Aliens). There’s no one that exemplifies the American vacation ideal, complete with its many faults, like Clark Griswold, and considering Vacation is one of my all-time favorite comedies, it felt perfect.
Clark Griswold is a fairly simple American family man. He just wants one thing: to give his family the ultimate road trip experience. Their destination: Wally World, home of Marty Moose. It’s clear that fate is not on their side, though, as problems arise before they even leave town. The car Clark ordered for the trip is not in, they consistently lose luggage at every turn, and Clark’s mid-life crisis shows up in the form of an attractive woman in a Ferrari that seems to be going the same way. Through it all, Clark tries to maintain a level of sanity for the sake of his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo, American History X, Frat Pack) and kids, Rusty and Audrey, but Clark is about to learn that getting to Wally World is only part of the journey.
John Hughes (Uncle Buck, Weird Science) seems to have had a hand in just about every major comedy of the 80s (okay, not really, but you know what I mean), and he based his screenplay off the short story “Vacation 58” that he wrote for the National Lampoon, based on elements of his own childhood. The script is clever, biting, and feels like something that you can jump right into at any point. In fact, when he presented the script to Jeffrey Katzenberg at Paramount, he criticized the plot for being “too episodic.” I would agree with him, though I see it as a strength. Everyone in America has gone through the best and worst kinds of vacation, and by writing it episodic, it doesn’t rely on the audience connecting with every single sequence. There’s a progression to the characters, most notably Clark, but the plot is presented in practically a vignette format, something that makes it easily digestible. Hughes was also clearly not above steering into uncomfortable territory. I’ve said it many times before, but this film is incredibly dark at times. No writer would even dream of doing the Bumper scene where Clark gets pulled over in today’s film landscape, and the scene is funny for how outrageous awful it is.
The script is not without its faults, though, and it’s perhaps the one area that loses the film its perfect status. The scene where the Griswold’s end up in a bad neighborhood does not work, and I’m not sure it ever did. It’s more that it has just aged very poorly. The idea that all black neighborhoods are filled with criminals just waiting for unsuspecting white families to drive through is just really bad taste, and I’ll applaud director Harold Ramis (Year One, The Ice Harvest) for admitting as much in his commentary for the film, calling it the most regrettable scene of his career. You can’t and shouldn’t delete this scene from the film, but it just stops the film dead now. The script also contained a really bad original ending involving a darker level of kidnapping, hostages, and plane hijackings that thankfully were replaced with the better ending that the film now has, and let’s be clear: I’m not even sure who put some of these scenes in the script originally (it is generally believed that Ramis and Chase did uncredited rewrites on the film switching the focus from the kids to the adults, and some of these poorer choices could’ve come from them.
When I go on vacations with my own family, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I am the Clark of the group. I’m the planner who tries to squeeze in every bit of tourism, all the while clashing with those that just want to relax or skip some of the lesser destinations. I think that’s the most relatable element of these films and the character of Clark. He exists in every family, and either you know someone like him, or that someone is you. He also embodies the idea of meaning well. He loves his kids, he loves his wife, and he’s just in a perpetual state of screwup. That makes him someone to root for, even through all the other horrible things he has done in this franchise. Unlike other famous film characters, I cannot see anyone outside of the legendary Chevy Chase in the character. Chase, as an actor, brings a spark to Griswold that makes him a larger-than-life everyman, a charismatic meshing of the kind of the parent that we all have in our memories. My dad had elements of him, as do I. This is perhaps Chase’s most famous character, and that’s for good reason. It’s the best and funniest that the actor has ever been.
The supporting cast is all terrific here as well, and most everyone will talk about Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen or Randy Quaid (Independence Day, Brokeback Mountain) as Cousin Eddie, and both are terrific, but I also think they are better serviced in other films in this series. In particular, I want to single out the work of Imogene Coca (Hollywood: The Movie, Buy & Cell) as Aunt Edna. She’s a unique character to the franchise in that she only appears in this first film, and she’s excellent, mostly because she plays antagonistically with the entire Griswold family the entirety of her screen time. Coca originally turned down the role of Edna, fearing she couldn’t play mean enough for what the film needed, but she becomes wholly memorable for what she brings to the film’s dynamic. This is what makes Vacation, and so much of Hughes’s filmography, work so well. We all know an Aunt Edna, not just form our families, but in life. There is someone you know in your past who is an Aunt Edna, and that realistic character work amid the zanier aspects of a Hughes story make for a unique experience. Edna is one of those perfect realistically over-the-top characters that Hughes did so well, and originally, her story had a much different ending which potentially would have led her to more appearances, so one only wonders what would’ve happened.
Another actor who only appeared in one of these is Hughes staple Anthony Michael Hall, who puts forth the best interpretation of Rusty Griswold of the entire franchise. Hall has great onscreen chemistry with Chase as a father/son dynamic, and it’s obvious from the very first scene where he and Clark arrive at the car lot to get their new family car for the trip. In fact, Hall may have inadvertently begun the tradition of the ever-swapping ages of Rusty and Audrey. During reshoots to fix the film’s chaotic and uneven ending, Hall showed up to film new scenes but had been through a growth spurt so they had to fix dialogue so that Rusty was the older child where this wasn’t initially the case, and I believe it had a hand in the drastically inconsistent ages of the kids as the series progressed, something that would further cement the Griswolds as the every-family archetype.
The only other character that isn’t praised enough in this film is the “character” of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, the iconic metallic pea-painted car that enters the Griswold’s possession at the start of the film. It’s a unique and memorable prop that is featured across the entire film and is just as notably funny as the rest of the cast. The way this prop is utilized as the most frustrating element of the film is a wonder and every time another piece of luggage is hurled from the top, every time its rear bumper commits a crime, every time it is juxtaposed with the Ferrari, it’s a damn funny piece of film because of the strangeness of this Family Truckster. It’s one of the greatest cars in film history.
Vacation is one of the best comedies of all time. The film is endlessly rewatchable, Chevy Chase is hilarious, and the supporting cast all play to their strengths. The film has aged poorly in a few areas, and I still don’t think it’s as strong as its Christmas counterpart, the film is a blueprint for the modern road trip film. Often imitated, this is a movie with a great cinema father, and here’s hoping 2021 will be full of memorable vacations to make up for last year.
-Kyle A. Goethe