Synopsis: The Griswold family’s cross-country drive to the Walley World theme park proves to be much more arduous than they ever anticipated.
Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Imogene Coca, Dana Barron, Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, John Candy
Director: Harold Ramis
Running Length: 98 minutes
Random Crew Highlight: Dinky (uncredited) ~ Popeye the Dog
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: The family road trip is a time honored tradition that seemingly everyone can relate to. The great majority of the population can recount the foibles of their cross-country treks with cars piled high with items you didn’t need to bring and relatives you wish you could have left behind. From breakdowns (both vehicular and personal) to car sickness, there is no end to the stories that can be told if you bring up the topic with a group of friends.
It was natural, then, that the people behind hot comedies like Caddyshack and Animal House would put their heads together and deliver a successful film that launched several careers and has become a comedy classic. Whether you refer to it as National Lampoon’s Vacation or, simply, as Vacation chances are you’ve caught this more than once since its release in 1983. Revisiting it again recently before a small road trip of my own, I was reminded just how much of an impact it’s had over the years, inspiring sequels and a much copied comedic plot structure.
Screenwriter John Hughes adapted a piece he wrote for the National Lampoon magazine titled “Vacation 58” and while I haven’t read his source material, it’s clear that the young Hughes had a knack for comedic dialogue and broad characters that embodied Middle America sensibilities and values. It would only be a year later that Hughes would write and direct Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club a year after that so it’s interesting to see this early work before his career skyrocketed. Though Hughes would provide the scripts for two of the three vacation film sequels, it’s this film that takes the most time to develop the characters and comedy.
Ramis already had a hit directing Caddyshack and here he reunites with Chase in what would become known as career highlights for both. Yes, the two would have a healthy run throughout the 80’s but it was their sophomore outing here that locked in their appeal and box office potential. Ramis surrounds Chase’s Clark Griswold with gifted comedic character actors who pull their own weight whether it’s a bit role like Candy or D’Angelo’s harried wife.
Most memorable of the bunch is Quaid – I’m not sure how much input he had at the outset but from his appearance to his delivery of Hughes dialogue he never takes a wrong turn. I vividly remember my family watching this and my dad howling with laughter whenever Quaid was onscreen. While Quaid has taken a trip to crazy town in recent years, his contributions to Cousin Eddie in Vacation (and even more so in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) are invaluable.
The presence of the delightful Cocoa is also a huge treat. Beloved from her days working with Sid Caesar she plays against type as batty and demanding Aunt Edna who becomes a late addition to the Griswold’s famous Family Truckster caravan. Cocoa had a talent for using her face to convey what dialogue couldn’t and it works like a charm here as she harangues Chase across highway and byway.
Situationally, the comedy that ensues as the Griswold’s travel to Wally World holds up quite well today. Even with the advances of modern technology, cell phones, and GPS devices it’s easy to remember the days when road trips were planned with maps and you couldn’t call ahead to see if your final destination would be open when you arrived. There are moments in Vacation that I’ll still laugh out loud at and I feel it’s the comedy that isn’t as obvious that gets to me more than slapstick humor.
If the film can be faulted for something it would be that the ending is too rushed and abrupt. After traveling with this family for ninety minutes or so, I would have liked a little more resolution in the place of a final scene that suggests more than a few purse strings were tightened when it came time to punch up the script. However, even that quibble is a minor one in the grand scheme of things.
Quickly approaching it’s 30th anniversary, National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the most memorable comedies of the 1980’s and one that still works today. Whether you’re going on a road trip yourself this summer or want to live vicariously through the Griswolds, consider circling back to the one film that started it all.