World Hum Travel Movie Club: National Lampoon’s ‘Vacation’

Travel Blog  •  Eli Ellison, Eva Holland  •  07.23.08 | 11:31 AM ET

Twenty-five years ago this month, Clark W. Griswold first bumbled across theater screens on a quest for the ultimate family vacation. Starting line: Chicago, Illinois. Destination: Walley World, California. The results? Hilarious! Or were they? Eli Ellison revisits an old favorite; Eva Holland takes her first trip down “Holiday Road.” They exchanged emails and debated the virtues of this travel-comedy classic.

From: Eli
To: Eva
Subject: The wagon queen Family Truckster rides again

Last week, watching National Lampoon’s European Vacation on cable, I thought to myself, I can’t believe I ever thought this crap was funny. So it was with fear of spoiling yet another fond childhood memory that I popped the original Vacation into the DVD player. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and know the best scenes by heart, but it’s been ages. The last time, an edited-for-TV version rolled as I sweated out the flu in a dingy Arizona motel room. I didn’t laugh much.

Years later, back at full strength, I’m relieved to report that as sure as Aunt Edna will arrive in Phoenix tied to the Family Truckster’s roof, Walley World is closed for repairs and Christie Brinkley can’t act her way out of a paper bag, “Vacation” is still the king of family road-trip comedies. All the great lines and sight gags were still crackin’ me up. Especially the classic Clark Griswold “You’re all—BLEEPED—in the head” meltdown.

I’m the first to admit “Vacation” is no comedic masterpiece. But as we suffer through the wretched imitations released every summer (“RV,” “Johnson Family Vacation,” etc.), I’m reminded of the things this one got right. Sure, the road-trip catastrophes are predictable and cliché. But the John Hughes script (one of his first) lampoons middle-American suburban angst and family car vacations to an acerbic “T.”   

As for Chevy Chase, remember when he used to be funny? Oh, he was never the best of the old SNL gang. And the downfalls of Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy are far more tragic. But Chevy is perfectly cast as Clark, his signature role. The part suits his laid-back, deadpan style and he doesn’t have to force it. His best stuff doesn’t lie in the dialogue, but in the way he reacts. Same goes for the whole cast.

The one-liners don’t rival those in Airplane!, probably the funniest travel comedy ever, but “Vacation” has more than its share of classics. Give it some love, Eva. I know this is your first time seeing “Vacation,” which is unbelievable. 

To: Eli
From: Eva
Subject: Great expectations

You’re right, this was my first time around with “Vacation,” or any of the flicks in the “Vacation” franchise for that matter. So I guess you could say that I filled an important gap in my travel-movie knowledge. But the king of family road-trip comedies? If “Vacation” is the best one out there, then I’ve gotta say, this is one sub-genre that still has lots of room for improvement.

Let’s start with the positives. For one thing, you’re right—Chevy Chase is at his deadpan best here, playing the awkward, corny father figure that makes everyone’s inner 14-year old roll their eyes and go “Aawwwww, Da-aaaad!” I thought the kids were great, too. So often child actors feel too rehearsed, too cutesy and perfect, but Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron played their parts perfectly, bouncing between earnest enjoyment and too-cool annoyance, and squabbling over nothing in the backseat.

Beyond that, though, I have to admit: this movie didn’t exactly have me in stitches. Maybe it’s because I got bored of the suitcases being knocked off the roof rack after the first time around. Maybe it’s because I was traumatized as a child by pictures in the newspaper of a dog that had been dragged behind a fast-moving vehicle. (Were we really supposed to laugh at that? Seriously?) Or maybe it’s because I’ve never actually been on a real family road trip—we were more of a “week at a rental cottage” type of clan. Whatever the reason, this one didn’t quite do it for me.

I will say this, though: the old-school station wagon with the faux-wood paneling is, was and always will be the ultimate family road-trip vehicle. If anyone in the auto industry is listening: minivans are not the same. They just aren’t. So even if I wasn’t always laughing when I was supposed to, I did get a huge kick out of seeing the Griswolds slowly destroying their trusty Family Truckster.

Were my expectations too high? I really wanted to love this movie, Eli, but I’m lukewarm on it. Convert me to the Griswold Fan Club if you can ...

To: Eva
From: Eli
Subject: Cousin Eddie & Holiday Road hamburgers

Bored by luggage flying off the roof? Come on. That’s high-concept comedy. You weren’t laughing during the visit to Cousin Eddie’s in Kansas? What about Aunt Edna? She’s hilarious. And yes, you were supposed to laugh at the dog-dragging bit. No, a pooch ground into hamburger by the highway isn’t funny. But the scene between Clark and the motorcycle cop is great. I suppose the St. Louis ghetto detour, the desert crash and the Walley World finale didn’t do it for you either, eh? 

Maybe your expectations were too high. When a comedy spawns three sequels, you expect the original to be an absolute gut-buster. I think it’s funny, but perhaps it is because I relate to the family car vacation odyssey so well. As a kid, we took one every summer. My sisters and I brawled in the backseat. We dined at A&W drive-ins. My dad never flirted with supermodels in red Ferraris (not that we know of), but Clark does remind me of my old man. Especially when he says things like, “Or perhaps you don’t want to see the second-largest ball of twine on the face of the Earth, which is only four short hours away.” 

Well, if this one didn’t have you howling, the sequels certainly won’t. “European Vacation”? All existing prints should be burned immediately. “Christmas” and “Vegas” have a few laughs, thanks to Cousin Eddie, but otherwise will turn your brain to jelly. And yes, I stand by my king of family road-trip comedies claim. What’s better? “Little Miss Sunshine”? It’s the only contender that maybe even comes close.

To: Eli
From: Eva
Subject: The big mushy payoff

Alright, Eli, I’ll admit that Cousin Eddie had his moments, and the Walley World finale was good, too—John Candy gets me every time. The “second-largest ball of twine” bit was genius, and I liked the family sing-along that kicked the road trip off, too. In general, I liked the more “real” bits of humor rather than the really outrageous stuff, like Aunt Edna being tied to the roof of the car.

The jokes were hit and miss for me, clearly—but the real problem, I think, was that the movie just felt like a string of one-liners and physical gags without much holding them together. It was a really odd mixture of jokes, too: you’ve got everything from incest and dog-killing to the suitcases-knocked-off-roof gag and motion sickness on roller coasters. What I mean is, “Vacation” runs the whole range from pure kids’ stuff to some much more adult humor. Did you know the flick is rated R? What’s the point of a family road-trip movie that you can’t take your kids to?

You and I have talked before about “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” another travel flick with a John Hughes script, starring some of the same crew of SNL/SCTV veterans. Here’s the key difference I see between something like “Planes, Trains” and “Vacation”: one of them has something more going on besides the “hilarious consequences.” Sure, there’s all the physical comedy, John Candy being irritating and Steve Martin being irate, but there’s also some tangible character development, a couple of heartbreaking moments, and—of course—the big mushy payoff. “Vacation” didn’t give me heartbreak or payoff, and I guess after awhile, with just gag after gag, I started to feel like the whole thing was a little stale.

OK, I’ve mostly been trashing this much-beloved movie so far, so here’s a question for you: with a classic like this, just how powerful is the nostalgia factor? Does the fact that I’d never seen “Vacation” when I was younger—whereas, for example, I can remember watching “Planes, Trains” for the first time on VHS at day care—make the difference?

To: Eva
From: Eli
Subject: Embrace the dumbness

Oy vey, you and your teary payoffs. Eva, it’s a dumb comedy aimed at adults who’ve been on the family road trip from hell and relate to the “‘real’ bits of humor,” as you call them. Nothing more. I do think nostalgia has a little to do with its appeal, and also agree “Planes, Trains” is a better movie.

So, it seems sap-master Hughes has finally let you down. I love it. Just remember, long before Hughes sentenced us to emotional detention with “The Breakfast Club,” he was a silly National Lampoon writer. I leave you with the original magazine short story on which “Vacation” is based: Vacation ‘58.

To: Eli
From: Eva
Subject: The “Vacation” drinking game

Yeah, I’m a sucker for the payoff—hey, if I wanted gritty realism, I would just look out the window instead of watching a movie, you know?—but I guess I can accept that some movies aren’t about that. Yes, even when John Hughes is involved.

Sounds like my expectations were out of whack on this one. Maybe I’ll give “Vacation” another chance sometime, under different circumstances—and by that I mean an accompanying drinking game.

Every time the suitcases fall off the Family Truckster’s roof, take a shot ...