Warner Bros. had themselves a bona fide hit with the R-rated 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation. The box office success was both a blessing and a curse since it meant green-lighting more movies featuring the Griswold family, a move that paid off with the third installment but forced audiences to suffer through the truly awful follow-up, European Vacation. I remembered this picture being bad; watching it again proved that it was much, much worse than I ever thought possible.
Let’s start with the filmmakers to figure out where things went wrong. John Hughes kicked this whole adventure off with his original short story and then wrote the screenplay for the first movie, work which carried over to the sequel. In 1985, Hughes also had scripting and directing duties for both The Breakfast Club and Weird Science, the latter of which stole Anthony Michael Hall away from reprising his role as Rusty Griswold. European Vacation still credits Hughes with screenplay and story work, but another screenwriter is also listed: Robert Klane. Klane is probably best known for writing Weekend at Bernie’s and its sequel, which he also directed. And if IMDb trivia is to be believed, Klane also wrote a rejected sequel to Grease, which he titled … Greasier. Whether this is a joke or not, I think we’ve found our first culprit behind European Vacation’s disastrous plot.
Things get off to a rocky start as soon as the opening credits are done rolling. (One could argue that the opening credit montage of a disgruntled customs agent angrily stamping Clark’s passport was a bad omen. In the DVD commentary, Chevy Chase himself revealed that this was his idea.) You might be asking yourself just how the Griswolds end up going to Europe and why it’s so important that we follow them on the journey. In Vacation, Clark simply wanted to take his family to Wally World and give them a memorable experience. In European Vacation, the Griswolds (or Griswalds, as it’s spelled here) luck their way into a victory over an obnoxiously smart family – all while wearing head-to-toe pig costumes – on “Pig in a Poke”, a game show that mashes up “Family Feud” with “The Price Is Right.” The grand prize: a European Vacation. The ultimate cost: years of therapy for young Audrey (Dana Hill) who is repeatedly molested by the game show host (John Astin). Not only is this a really creepy start to a comedy, it also lacks any dramatic tension because audiences are just going to tag along for this journey. And tag along we do as the Griswolds bring their awkward American arrogance and faux pas to bear on various cityfolk and townspeople across the European landscape.
But even if the script isn’t great, surely a competent director and film editor could have cut the fat off of bloated, unnecessary scenes while trimming comedic moments in order to punch up the jokes to their full effect. Amy Heckerling took over directorial duties from Harold Ramis, after having helmed the comedies Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Johnny Dangerously in 1982 and 1984 respectively; Heckerling would also go on to write and direct Clueless and the first two Look Who’s Talking movies. That’s a pretty hit-or-miss resume, so unfortunately a lot of the blame of European Vacation’s misfiring can be at least equally shared with Heckerling. Pembroke J. Herring edited the film, but apparently even this three-time Oscar-nominated editor couldn’t cobble together anything worthwhile … or maybe it’s just that it was worse before he did.
Upon landing in London, it doesn’t take long for the Griswolds to run afoul of the locals, and by that I mean taking the time to run through all the European stereotypes you can imagine. Actually, that seems to be the point of the whole adventure: it’s half “Aren’t Europeans weird?” and half “Aren’t Americans ignorant?” but with so much winking going on that hardly anyone’s laughing. There are Englishmen with bad teeth and unintelligible accents, lots of folks who drive on the “wrong side of the road”, promiscuous European girls around every corner, and a few mustachioed villains who dabble in petty theft, bank robbery, attempted rape, and armed kidnapping. How funny is that!
When the Griswolds aren’t busy destroying historic monuments or insulting the customs of the locals, they find time to run into various guest stars. A young Robbie Coltrane, best known these days as Hagrid from the Harry Potter films, peeps on Ellen in the bathtub; Moon Unit Zappa meets up with Rusty and becomes his American girlfriend; and poor Eric Idle of Monty Python fame quite literally gets run into three times throughout the film, thus completing the comedic rule of three. Oh and because there aren’t enough musical montages in the film already (Ellen does a little show tune number of her own early on, followed by a brief Sound of Music nod later on) we spend five minutes watching the Griswolds trying on outlandish “European” attire in a Euro-torture scene that rivals those seen in Hostel.
I don’t want to give you the impression that there are zero laughs to be found in this movie; only that they are few and far between. The strange thing is that the parts that really worked in Vacation – Clark’s interactions with his in-laws, Clark reacting to an absurd situation rather than being the direct cause of it – are almost absent in the sequel. The strangest thing, however, is the way this whole adventure wraps up. There’s a scene towards the end of European Vacation that sees Ellen being schmoozed by a bank robber in her hotel lobby, a scene that clearly calls back to the gender-swapped flirtation between Clark and the Girl in the Ferrari from the first film. Rather than go skinny dipping in the pool, however, Ellen and the man retire to the bedroom, where Ellen is nearly raped before the man draws a gun, kidnaps her, and spirits her away in his economy-sized car. This, of course, leads Clark into a wild car chase through the steep, cobblestone streets that ends with a crash into a fountain. Then the good ol’ American family flies back home, defacing their own homegrown monument when they cause their plane to knock the torch from the Statue of Liberty’s hand. Comedy! Just be glad nobody thought it was a good idea to go ahead with Chase and Idle’s actual script for a third film: Australian Vacation.
A lot went wrong in European Vacation, easily putting it at the bottom of the pile. The bad news is that you had to suffer through this revisit of the film with me; the good news is that we now get to look back at my absolute favorite film next. Oh, and when I say “favorite” I don’t just mean “favorite Vacation film.” I mean favorite film of all time!
Tomorrow: Christmas Vacation