VACATION Retrospective: The Mother Truckster of All Family Road Trip Movies

     July 22, 2015


It’s hard not to feel a sense of nostalgia when watching Harold Ramis’ original 1983 comedy, Vacation. Whether that’s a nostalgia for the filmmakers themselves – Chevy Chase in his prime, the late Harold Ramis and John Hughes early in their directing and writing careers, vintage appearances from SCTV stars John Candy and Eugene Levy, a break-out role for Anthony Michael Hall, and the big-screen introduction of Christie Brinkley and Jane Krakowski – or for road trips with friends and family, Vacation has something for everyone. And I’m happy to say that, despite its very obvious 80s influences, it still holds up over 30 years later.


Image via Warner Bros.

When I embarked on this retrospective journey (which will take me through all four Vacation films in anticipation of John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein’s upcoming sequel/reboot), it felt like prepping for my very own road trip. I knew the destination and a lot of the waypoints since I’d visited them before, each time as an individual adventure. I expected there to be highs and lows, rewarding surprises and seemingly endless roadblocks, and a strange smell from the backseat that pervaded the whole experience. What I didn’t expect was to feel a sense of homecoming, like reuniting with family members you haven’t seen in a long time, some of whom you like quite a bit better than others.

It all started with a short story from Hughes, titled “Vacation ’58”, which he submitted to National Lampoon Magazine; the rest is history. A perfect storm of screenwriter Hughes, director Ramis, and lead funnyman Chase came together to create the Griswolds, a modern-American family headed by the cartoonish Clark (Chase). For those of you who haven’t seen any of the Vacation movies because you can’t quite seem to grasp or enjoy the humor, here’s my advice: view it as a live-action cartoon. I submit that Vacation and each of its sequels are far more cartoon than lampoon, owing mostly to Chase’s physical brand of comedy and the increasing absurdity of events that afflict the poor Griswolds as the plot plays out.


Image via Warner Bros.

Chase’s performance is as good a place to start as any. Coming off of the success of Caddyshack a few years earlier, Chase’s Clark W. Griswold is less of a lazy ladykiller with an easy golf swing than he is a harried businessman whose greatest ambition is to drive the tribe cross-country to Wally World, thereby providing a fun and memorable road-trip vacation for his family. Clark, of course, fails miserably at the fun part of this trip, but certainly succeeds in making it a memorable one. The oddity that sticks out in Clark’s character is his flirtatious nature when it comes to the Girl in the Red Ferrari (Brinkley), a relationship that goes from casual to near-adulterous over the course of the movie. It’s a weird departure from the road trip film that feels like more Chevy than Clark, but it certainly delivers some of the most memorable scenes in the movie.

The crux of this comedy rests on Chase’s comedic physical performance, from his increasing frustration with the dysfunctional Wagon Queen Family Truckster, to his agitation with his equally dysfunctional extended family, to his awkward interactions with characters in the world around him (Brinkley’s hot blonde, Levy’s sleazy used-car salesman, James Keach’s motorcycle cop, Candy’s park security guard and many more), and finally to his ultimate blow-up upon finding Wally World closed for repairs. Chase’s goofball antics are allowed to be as broad as they are thanks to a strong straight-man supporting cast, anchored by the lovely and talented Beverly D’Angelo who plays his wife Ellen throughout the series. It works equally well when Chase’s cartoonish behavior is upstaged by the absolute characters of scene-stealer Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and Aunt Edna, played wonderfully by the late, great Imogene Coca.


Image via Warner Bros.

All the slapstick characters in the world won’t help a comedy stand the test of time without equally absurd circumstances taking place in the world around them. From the outset, we’re told that the Griswolds live in a cartoonish facsimile of the real world when Clark’s old Vista Cruiser is crushed to clown-car proportions; a bonus wink comes when Clark still tries to open the destroyed car’s door and drive it away. The Griswolds’ new vehicle – a “metallic pea” monstrosity – might as well be animated for how cartoonish it is. As the road trip progresses, Clark is temporarily blown away with a double-barrel shotgun (loaded with blanks), survives untold hours in the desert of the American Southwest, and eventually straps the corpse of his aunt-in-law to the roof of their wagon. If you don’t see this movie as a cartoon by this point, there’s not much more I can say to convince you.

For all its anachronisms – 80s fashion and car models, Bally’s Astrocade and Coleco’s TableTop Pac-Man, the slang, and lack of cellphones and digital currency (which would have solved many a problem) – the main trait that makes Vacation stand out as an early 80s film is its commitment to being as non-PC as possible. The racial humor, class distinctions, indifference to animal cruelty (or humane treatment of dead relatives), and overt sexism are unabashedly on display here. Oddly, it’s actually kind of refreshing. It’s an R-rated adult comedy that doesn’t shy away from controversy. I highly recommend revisiting the full version, not its TV-edited form that’s become more prevalent in recent years.

Vacation isn’t perfect, but it’s the type of movie whose flaws can actually add to the overall appreciation of a film. Goofs and gaffes abound, some intentional (like Clark drying dirty dishes and putting them in the cupboard), some not (like Clark nearly smacking a nearby woman in the head with a carelessly flung license plate), but all add to the enjoyment of repeat viewing. Despite the strong comedic performances, absurd-yet-hilarious writing, and establishment of a comedy franchise and its fan-favorite characters, Vacation remains my second favorite of the four movies.

Tune in throughout the week as I revisit the rest of them, continuing with tomorrow’s overseas epic, European Adventure.


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