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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

All my life I’ve wanted to have a big family Christmas. Chicago-area resident Clark ‘Sparky’ Griswold (Chevy Chase) plans to have a great Christmas with his entire family. He gathers wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), daughter Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and son Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and drives out to the country to find a tree. After walking through the snow for hours, Clark picks out the largest tree he can find but without a saw they are forced to uproot it instead, before driving home with the tree strapped to the roof of their car. Soon after, both sets of parents Clark’s (Diane Ladd and John Randolph) and Ellen’s (Doris Roberts and E.G. Marshall) arrive but their bickering quickly begins to annoy the family. Clark, however, maintains a positive attitude, determined to have an old-fashioned family Christmas. He covers the house’s entire facade with 25,000 lights, which fail to work at first, as he has accidentally wired them through his garage’s light switch. When they finally come on, they temporarily cause a citywide power shortage and create chaos for Clark’s yuppie neighbours, Todd Chester (Nicholas Guest) and his wife Margo (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). While standing on the front lawn admiring the lights, Clark is shocked to see Ellen’s redneck cousin Catherine Johnson (Miriam Flynn) and her husband Eddie (Randy Quaid), as they arrive unannounced in their RV with their children, Rocky (Cody Burger) and Ruby Sue (Ellen Hamilton Lantzen), and their scary Rottweiler, Snot. Eddie later admits that they are living in the RV, as he is broke and has been forced to sell his home and acreage. Clark offers to buy gifts for Eddie’s kids so they can still enjoy Christmas. Soon afterward, Clark’s senile Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel) and grumpy toupeed Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) arrive as well. Clark begins to wonder why his boss Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle Murray) who never gets his name right, has not given him his yearly bonus – his best friend at work Bill (Sam McMurray) already claims to have his – and which he desperately needs to replace an advance payment he has made to install a swimming pool for the coming summer. After a disastrous Christmas Eve dinner, along with Bethany’s cat getting electrocuted and Uncle Lewis accidentally burning down the Christmas tree while lighting his cigar, he finally receives an envelope from a company messenger, who had failed to deliver it the day before. Instead of the presumed bonus, the envelope contains a free year’s membership for the Jelly of the Month Club. This prompts Clark to snap and go into a tirade about Frank and, out of anger, request that he be delivered to the house, wrapped in a bow, so Clark can insult him to his face … I don’t want to spend the holidays dead. The third in the series of family comedies, and with a couple of cast changes in the ensemble (the kids), beloved writer/director and humorist John Hughes wrote a short story Christmas ’59 for the venerated magazine National Lampoon in 1980 and was asked to bring it to the screen. Following clashes with Chevy Chase director Chris Columbus opted out of directing and was replaced by Jeremiah Chechik and eventually Hughes brought another Christmas screenplay called Home Alone to Columbus. Hmmm…. In the interim we had this typically shrewd blend of action, comedy, pathos, embarrassment, sentiment, yucks and family trials and tribulations in a story of hapless well-meaning middle class male humiliation at work and at home. He’s got that look in his eye, sighs his worried wife, D’Angelo once again bringing sanity to the saga as her optimistic overreaching husband triggers another chain of catastrophes. The moments of recognition and emotion are perfectly pitched in a narrative that’s well paced and staged, the outdoor lights sequence is practically Keatonesque (so much so that we wait for the house to fall down around Chase) and in a story filled with animal foes the final fight – with a squirrel – is wonderful. If it doesn’t quite hit all the vicious beats we might gleefully anticipate it’s often heartwarming and very funny indeed. Happy Thanksgiving! Nobody’s walking out on this fun-filled family Christmas

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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