40 Years Later, National Lampoon’s Vacation Is Fun But Badly Defanged Suburban Satire

Comedy Features National Lampoon's Vacation
40 Years Later, National Lampoon’s Vacation Is Fun But Badly Defanged Suburban Satire

When I was a kid, I had no idea that Saturday Night Live co-stars Chevy Chase and Bill Murray had a long-standing, simmering feud, one that even exploded into fisticuffs(!) backstage. Yet when it came to choosing between the two, mine was always a Murray household, especially in the early 2000s when the star was making melancholy indies like Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers. Oh, Chase was funny, don’t get me wrong—I always laughed at “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not,” and his smartassery in Caddyshack was unparalleled (even if Murray’s sublime stupidity there still overshadowed him). But where Murray was truly content to be in on the joke, smirking at authority figures but never patronizing the audience, Chase always felt smug and above his own material. He’d raise an eyebrow at the buffoonery in Fletch and Spies Like Us, certain he was better than this. 

When National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis, was released in 1983, America ultimately voted with their dollars for Chase’s ascendance as a movie star. The movie made $61 million worldwide ($188 million adjusted for inflation) and spawned several sequels, including Christmas Vacation, European Vacation, and the misbegotten 2015 reboot Vacation. Forty years later, it’s strange to think about a comedy this darkly funny creating a successful franchise in an age dominated by bigger blockbusters. It’d be easy for any film fans reading this to now consider and mourn the demise of the studio comedy. However, Vacation exemplifies the best and worst aspects of the National Lampoon school of laughs, as well as why Chevy Chase never understood his own stardom. 

The movie centers on food additive executive Clark Griswold (Chase), his wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), son Russell a.k.a. Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall), and daughter Audrey (Dana Barron), a nuclear family about to take a road trip to the thinly disguised Disney analogue Walley World. How excited are they for this trip to “America’s Favorite Family Fun Park”? The foursome sing the entire theme song for the main mascot, Marty Moose. Clark somehow has the entire route mapped out on his video game set. When things go wrong, he ties his wife’s Aunt Edna’s (Imogene Coca) dead body to the top of the infamous Wagon Queen Family Truckster. And when things really go wrong, he pulls what looks like a gun on a security guard to get the park up and running.       

For a film featuring two fun, poppy Lindsay Buckingham songs on the soundtrack, including hit “Holiday Road,” Vacation’s depiction of the family trip from hell is often shockingly, hilariously dark. The Griswolds have fun at first, but as they run out of money and repeatedly get lost or crash the wagon, their true colors start to show. 

In a performance foreshadowing her venomous, disgusted roles in ‘90s films High Fidelity and American History X, D’Angelo tells her aunt to “Sit down and shut up!” Audrey fails to light the joints Cousin Vicki (Jane Krakowski) gives her, while Rusty shotguns a beer when Dad isn’t looking. He also cheerfully points out to Clark how “you killed a dog.” Under the stress of driving hundreds of miles a day and trying to have a good time, the happy suburban family cracks just like anyone else would. Chase especially reaches a gleefully funny but genuinely unnerving, unhinged place, with Clark telling his wife and offspring “I think you’re all fucked in the head!” Vacation captures how the determination of American families to enjoy themselves every summer can reach a fever pitch of delusion and callous behavior. 

Yet ironically, Ramis and John Hughes have their cake and eat it too like plenty of other comedies from the same period, mocking Clark’s plucky, dumbass attitude while also adopting his repulsion toward anyone who doesn’t share the Griswolds’ middle-class background. When the family drives through St. Louis, looking out from their car at numerous people of color on the street, the dad tells the kids to “see the plight” of the cities—then to roll up the windows. (There isn’t a white extra in sight either.) When they stop for directions, the wagon gets robbed, as well as tagged with the phrase “Honky Lips.” Clark’s polite racism is not inaccurate, but everything about the scene also confirms his white flight paranoia instead of doing anything subversive or interesting with the dynamic. 

Similarly, Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his family are gross “rednecks” who deserve Clark’s detached disdain, a hotel clerk won’t budge on petty rules about checks and cards, and the mechanic who cheats and threatens Clark is the sheriff of his county. It’s crucial to know at this point that the somehow much nastier original story by John Hughes, “Vacation ‘58,” features the son as the main storyteller, is set in 1958 proper, and is thus much less confused about tone. The patriarch is a raving lunatic who, when he can’t get the trip he wants, outright shoots and injures Walt Disney, putting another nail in the coffin of the post-war American image. 

Chase and Ramis decided the film instead needed to be present day and should be a vehicle for the former. But the revised script’s endless sympathy toward Clark, even when he’s threatening a security guard (John Candy) and diving into a pool naked alongside Christie Brinkley, in her first film appearance, means Vacation is typically pulling punches when it should be biting the nostalgic, consumerist hand that’s feeding it. In 2014, years after his film career had died, Chase left his regular role on Community. There were many reasons for his exit, but he felt his character was always the bigoted butt of the joke. At the end of the day, maybe that was the ultimate difference between him and Bill Murray. The latter never seemed to notice his own absurd, serene confidence on the screen, whereas what lingers with Chase is that insincere smile: begging us to like him when Vacation, and his other vehicles, might have been better if we didn’t always have to.    

C.M. Crockford is a Philly-based neurodivergent writer with poems, articles, stories published in various outlets. You can find him on Twitter and find his other work at cmcrockford.com.

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