We gave it a B+
Getting there is half the fun,” claims Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase). But nobody has much fun in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983, 1 hr., 38 mins., R), the beloved road-trip farce. Clark is taking the family on a cross-country odyssey to a bizarro-Disneyland called Walley World. The trip isn’t just doomed to failure; it’s doomed to perpetual failure. They get lost. They get robbed. They crash. They run out of money. The parents’ coitus is eternally interruptus. The very fabric of their family unit almost gets torn asunder, thanks to Christie Brinkley, a modern-day siren beckoning Clark in her red Ferrari.
Sequels to the film trended more PG-13, so it’s striking to watch the original — celebrating its 30th anniversary with a no-frills new Blu-ray — and see how raw, pervy, and just plain angry it is. There are scenes that would be unthinkable today in a major Hollywood release. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a Vacation reboot with Ed Helms was recently postponed.) Son Rusty (a barely pubescent Anthony Michael Hall) downs an entire can of beer. There’s an uncomfortably un-PC trip to a St. Louis ghetto. At one point, a hickish Griswold cousin (Jane Krakowski) boasts of her French-kissing bona fides: ”Daddy says I’m the best at it.”
Vacation was written by John Hughes, and it’s more caustic than anything in his iconic teen-dream filmography. Hughes drives the Griswolds insane, really. Or maybe they were always insane. Chase brilliantly plays Clark as a grinning suburban dad perched on the edge of psychosis: He’s W.C. Fields pretending to be Jimmy Stewart. Director Harold Ramis, who worked with Chase on Caddyshack, turns Vacation into a showcase for the actor’s golden-age passive-aggressive charisma.
At heart, Vacation is really a one-joke premise — family trip goes awry — and the plot dissipates into a series of hit-or-miss sketches. I was hoping that the new Blu-ray might include a peek at the original ending, in which an unhinged Clark takes the Walley World execs hostage at gunpoint. Test audiences hated that version; it sounds both bleaker and better than the lame reshot finale, with its redemptive John Candy cameo. Alas, actual fresh EXTRAS are skimpy: a commentary from the 2010 Blu-ray, plus a recycled behind-the-scenes doc. Still, the movie itself remains a mean-spirited delight, an American tragedy of familial decay so funny it hurts. B+