There are basically two kinds of Christmas movies.
First, there are the dramas where a Scrooge-like protagonist (or Scrooge himself if we’re talking about “A Christmas Carol”) learns to appreciate life/have faith/give without the expectation of receiving anything in return, etc.
These movies, which include “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” are annual classics, and I have nothing but admiration for the lessons they wish to teach us. (I actually think “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an exceedingly good movie in its own right, and not just a good Christmas movie.)
The second kind of Christmas movies are the comedies, where the holiday is both satirized (in theory) and given tribute for its redemptive powers.
“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989) is, expectedly, of the latter sort. But what “Christmas Vacation” possesses that is lacking in so many modern Christmas comedies are kernels of emotional truth that make us both laugh and cringe at their veracity.
As with the other “Vacation” films, this one features Chevy Chase as Clark W. Griswold Jr., the manic and motivated patriarch of the Griswold family, which includes long-suffering wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and disaffected teenage siblings Rusty and Audrey (Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis).
The film’s premise centers on Clark’s insatiable desire to have the entire family, including uncles, aunts, grandparents and second cousins, over to the Griswold home for “a good old-fashioned family Christmas.”
What follows from this central premise is scene after scene in which Clark’s expectations comically collide with reality.
Instead of going to a lot to buy a Christmas tree, Clark drags the entire family out to the wilderness to cut down a tree, only to realize they’ve forgotten the saw. Clark wants his house to be the best and most luminously decorated one on the block, so he spends all day outside stapling thousands of lights to his roof and then can’t figure out why the lights won’t turn on. And so on.
“Christmas Vacation” is far from perfect, and its caricatured characters, meant to remind us of our own mentally unstable relatives, occasionally devolve into lowbrow stereotyping (i.e. Cousin Eddie, played by Randy Quaid).
But screenplay writer John Hughes (“The Breakfast Club,” “Home Alone”) has an acute understanding of the impulsive and not-so-noble ways the Christmas season can cause people to act.
The film may have a sentimental streak, as allmovie.com critic Hal Erickson observed, but that sentimental streak is tempered by Chase’s hilarious performance as the increasingly irrational Clark, and by pointed observations like the one Ellen tells her complaining daughter: “What can I say, dear? It’s Christmas, and we’re all miserable.”
Movie reviewer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the individual author and not necessarily those of the Collegian.