A look at the film ‘National Lampoons Vacation’ directed by Harold Ramis.
When I think back to my years as a youngster, growing up in an age where electronic entertainment was beginning to gain a major foothold in everyday homes, I remember things like the ZX Spectrum. Games came on tape cassettes, took five minutes to load and, if your household was like mine, you’d watch as either your mum or your sister established a near monopoly of them due to becoming ace-experts on their favourite titles.
I was probably a bit too young to really appreciate many of the games. There were a couple that I liked, but I didn’t really understand them and I’d only play the bits that I could do and get others to do the rest for me.
Ironically, neither my mum nor my sister now really give two-hoots about video gaming. I’ve picked up that mantle and boy, am I running with it?
Anyway, I’ve digressed before I even had a starting point to digress from. That must take some talent.
Another thing I remember are films that our household revered and others we reviled. One that was almost like a swear-word, was ‘Police Academy’. As such, I grew up with an almost genetic dislike of the film and its entire franchise without ever having seen the original film, nor any of the three-hundred-and-twelve sequels in their entirety.
I saw that ‘Police Academy’ – the original, first one – had popped up on Netflix and thus, I figured it was about time to tick it off my bucket list. After all, I had a good idea what to expect; a goof-ball, madcap comedy along the likes of ‘Police Squad’ with Leslie Nielsen. In fact, I noticed that Pat Proft was credited as a writer in ‘Academy’ which I took with great delight.
After all, Proft is credited as a creative scribe in a many fabulous and madcap comedies such as the aforementioned ‘Police Squad’ films and ‘Hot Shots’. I’ve since learned that Proft has a tumultuous career in being funny and also for dragging a franchise through decades of sequels that many wished would cease to exist. Cough-cough-‘Scary Movie 3’ onwards-cough.
Watching ‘Academy’ earlier this week with my dinner, I was grateful for having my dinner to distract me from the film. Unfortunately, I clear plates of food like opening the fuselage of an airliner at forty-thousand-feet clears out a cabin of its passengers. The distraction didn’t last long and thus I was left watching a flat, humourless, juvenile, rather tragic flick that tried ever so hard to raise a giggle from its audience but failed amazingly at every single opportunity.
To be blunt, ‘Police Academy’… It’s shit! My family were right to shun it and shield me from it.
At the same time, ‘Academy’ appeared on Netflix, so to did a title that was almost worshipped like a deity by my family; ‘National Lampoons Vacation’. It’s been decades since I watched it and I remember chuckling at it before, but a part of me was afraid to watch it again in case it sullied those great memories.
I took the plunge earlier this evening and I’m happy to report, it didn’t disappoint. In fact, seeing it again after all these years, it felt like I was seeing some parts of it again for the very first time.
There are sequels, there’s even a very recent film by almost the same name which, again, tries hard but musters very few real laughs, but this one, the first ‘Vacation’, the original from which all the others had to follow-on, this is the real deal.
So much about the film is just fantastically spot on. From the opening sequence with the postcard montage and the song ‘Holiday Road’ right through to the photo-essay of the journey that closes the film. The songs bookending the film, both by former Fleetwood Mac band member, Lyndsey Buckingham, were written specifically for the film but have since become some of his best-known solo singles.
‘Holiday Road’ is an exceptionally bad song. But I think that’s very deliberate. If the road trip depicted in the film, with that awful car, dysfunctional family and the capers they get themselves into could be squashed into a three minute sound byte, then ‘Holiday Road’ does it brilliantly. This gives it the unusual honour of being both awful and perfect at the same time.
The car; introduced as if it were – and it ultimately does become – a main character in the film. A send-up of the over-designed cars of the seventies and eighties that were becoming ever more vulgar and cheap. Driven brand new off the forecourt, it already has an annoying rattle, loose interior trim that squeaks, an engine run-on issue and faulty airbags that deploy for no reason at all.
And taking it all in his stride is Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold, a proud man who likes to portray the image that he’s in control at all times, despite never quite managing to get the handle on any given situation. It’s a performance that is quintessentially Chevy Chase, but has a few additional special qualities that makes his Griswold a stand out example in his long history as an actor.
What’s interesting to note with the Griswolds, is that it’s not a Mr Vs Mrs relationship where there’s a long-suffering wife in the wings who just has to go along with it all. Rather Beverly D’Angelo gives us a character, Ellen, who is a perfect partner for Chase’s Clark. She’s strong willed, proud, a parent first, but she’s ignorant of her immediate surroundings, she’s easily led, she’s the kind who’s just as invested in the mad schemes her husband creates even if she occasionally voices some doubt.
An amazing example of how she and her husband live and work together comes early on as they’re discussing the family holiday while doing the washing up. Clark is standing next to an open dishwasher, Ellen with all the dirty dinner crockery. As they talk, she scrapes leftovers into a bin and hands the dishes to Clark who dutifully wipes them dry with a tea-towel and then puts them away in a cupboard.
At not one single point does he realise he’s being handed dirty dishes to put in the dishwasher, and at no point, does Ellen clock what he’s doing. They’re working in harmony together, sharing a task, yet neither has any awareness of the other beyond their own superficial thoughts.
This ignorance roots them as a great team who’ll never work together to reach the same goal, and it allows a wonderful relationship dynamic to build between them which makes the film even stronger.
Their teenage children are the ones who suffer as a result; kids who want to rebel against society, listen to rock music and play video games. Not sit in a hot, stuffy car for two weeks trying to drive from Chicago to California. But through them, we get to experience some great moments, some great lines and great performances that fully capture the spirit of the film without ever betraying the teenage mentality. Big kudos to – who were at the time – two young actors who were right at the start of their careers in film.
The only part of ‘Vacation’ that I find a little bit of a let-down, is the finale. But there’s probably good reason for this. The original ending that was filmed had been disliked by test audiences and so, months after principle photography had ended, everyone was recalled back to have another go at it.
Even as a youngster, before I knew about reshoots and alternate endings, something about the way the film ended didn’t sit right with me. Watching it again after all these years, I suppose I could argue that it’s a case-study for actions without consequences, being forgiven for being a terrible person because you’ve got a sob-story, but in the end, it feels like the ending of a different film. It doesn’t have the same atmosphere, it doesn’t have the same charm or humour.
In a way though, our journey as a viewer is a mirror of the characters journey throughout the film. Their voyage ended in a big let-down, but they ultimately got what they wanted. In a way, so do we. The ending might be a re-shot afterthought, but we still walk away from the film having achieved what we sat down to accomplish; to have a bit of fun watching pictures on the big rectangle for an hour and a half.
The ending is not enough of a reason to pass on this film. Everything that precedes it is excellent comedy and a performance masterclass by the four intrepid souls riding in that rotten old station wagon.
At times like these, with holidays in very short supply due to Covid, take a different kind of break. Put ‘Vacation’ on, sit back with some snacks and be grateful that others are having the bad road trip holidays so you don’t have to.
A reason why you should watch it: The Griswold family; dry, snarky, horny, ditzy, selfish and annoyingly relatable.
A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: Christie Brinkley never actually fully gets her kit off.