Every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ childhoods. —Randall Munroe
White suburban dads in the movies of the ’80s and ’90s looked exactly the same as my own father—a man who, when I was two, wired up a cardboard box with batteries and lights so that I could be a Transformer for Halloween, lighting it all up by pushing a button. It’s one of the reasons why paterfamilias Clark Griswold’s epic battle with his exterior lighting setup in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) feels like only the slightest surrealist exaggeration of actual holiday hell.
The third movie in the Griswold clan’s story trades out the road trip structure but keeps the episodic nature, drawing in new characters exactly before they’re needed for the scenario and then weaving in setups whose payoffs you’ll guess the moment you see them. It doesn’t matter: 30 years on from its debut, my girlfriend’s kids howled with laughter at every punch line and pratfall.
Ellen: “I know how you build things up in your mind. You set standards that no family can ever live up to.”
Clark: “When have I ever done that?”
Ellen: “Parties, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays, vacations, graduations…”
The movie catches up with the Griswold family in their natural habitat in Chicago, preparing for what Clark (Chevy Chase) is determined will be a big family Christmas. At the same time, he’s waiting for a big fat Christmas bonus check that basically nobody gets anymore—not because he’s struggling to keep the heat on or that the kids need insulin, but so that he can install the in-ground pool he wants.
The rest of the family, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), Audrey (Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki), are relegated to background characters in this installment, with barely any of their own gags and not a single subplot. Even more than in the road trip movies, they’re just trying to survive their father’s self-centeredness and avoid their squabbling family members from out of town. Galecki plays off Chase the best though, as a son who is so disillusioned with his father’s uniformly, predictably bad behavior that it’s become resignation. At one point, Clark encounters a hot female department store clerk and immediately loses the power of coherent speech, and Rusty can spot what’s going on at a distance with perfect clarity.
John Hughes’ script hits every exhausting holiday obligation, from picking out the far-too-big tree, to hosting ungrateful and weird family members, to the elaborate outdoor lights, to senile relatives who bicker and give lame gifts, to the inevitably ruined turkey. Hughes would return to the suburban Christmas the very next year in Home Alone, another comedy pitched straight to the cheap seats that manages to dig deep into some of the uncomfortably familiar things about my own Christmases growing up.
Dad brought the tree into the garage and attached the stand. He was in a much better mood. He always is after he does something really stupid. —John Hughes, “Christmas ’59”
I wrote that Die Hard is a movie about dealing with assholes during the holidays. So is Christmas Vacation, with the crucial difference that the asshole in question is our own boomer parents. Hughes has made no secret of the fact he didn’t particularly want to revisit the characters from National Lampoon’s Vacation: In an interview in 2000, he said his writing credit on European Vacation was due to his having created the characters, and he only returned to write Christmas Vacation because he could easily base it off an exasperatingly racist short story he wrote for the National Lampoon magazine, published in December 1980, titled “Christmas ’59.”
If you can manage to get through a story with an Asian character who is described as having big teeth and whose dialogue swaps Ls for Rs, several of the slapstick beats from it will immediately seem familiar, from the electrocuted pet and senile old aunt to the disastrous turkey and the father’s psychotic insistence, when faced with a Christmas tree mishap, of just sawing down a pine from the front yard. Director Chris Columbus was originally attached to direct, but is said to have walked due to personality conflicts with Chase, which may indirectly have led to Hughes working with him on Home Alone the very next year.
It’s pretty clear that all of the little episodes in the earlier half of the film are just tarrying on the way to the big payoff that is the disastrous Christmas Eve dinner which also formed the climax to Hughes’ original story. The last indignity that breaks Clark is finding out that his Christmas bonus is just a subscription to a jelly of the month club, prompting Chevy Chase’s rage-fueled rant for the ages. He is a Baby Boomer, and he has not gotten what he wants.
Christmas as we know it here in the United States is basically a construct for white Baby Boomers, a piece of social infrastructure in the same way the interstate highway system is a piece of transportational infrastructure. A country that makes things and buys things needs to have an excuse to do that. You listen to a Christmas carol from the late ’40s or the ’50s like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” or “Sleigh Ride,” and they’re unsettlingly fixated on things and how nice it is to have them.
The boomers are retiring, and their kids are starting to be the ones to host Christmas now, and this is coinciding more and more with America being a country that does not make things and does not in any meaningful way buy things any longer. As wages have stagnated, fewer people are buying homes and cars. The holiday season has become less important for retail, in part because we now just shop online throughout the year. For most debt-saddled, low-credit millennials, the act of blowing hundreds of dollars on Christmas is an impossibility. Maybe we should skimp on haircuts.
There’s a kernel of honest-to-goodness sentiment buried in Clark’s oneupmanship and largesse—an earnest wish for the magical Christmas of his bygone youth. At one point, trapped in the attic, the one truly touching moment of the movie occurs, as Clark bundles up and feeds old home movies into the projector to relive the Christmas of his boyhood. As ever, Clark is the victim of his own absurd insistence that he have everything exactly the way he wants, which is exactly the way it was in the good old days.
The whole sham comes to its climax when Randy Quaid’s gamely ridiculous redneck Cousin Eddie apprehends Clark’s boss and the whole family browbeats him into giving Clark an actual bonus. Having secured money—the true meaning of the season—they all celebrate (until the cops bust in).
It’s only become more fun to laugh at Clark’s misfortune as the ensuing 30 years have revealed that guys like him remain just as hopelessly stuck in their ways. Any one of us would absolutely love to come barging into his house on Christmas Eve with a VHS of Die Hard and a Mariah Carey CD.
Kenneth Lowe is the merriest asshole this side of the insane asylum. You can follow him on Twitter or read more at his blog.