Revisiting . . . National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

National Lampoon's Vacation Poster

VHS Revival revisits the inaugural adventure of Hollywood’s favourite dysfunctional family.

Long before The Simpsons made their mark on American culture, Warner Brothers gave us the Griswolds.

Sure, there had been dysfunctional families before, but as a symbol of America’s faltering moral climate Clark and his band of three proved something of a landmark in outlining the reality of the time-honoured cross-country road trip in all of its failed glory. Time may have diluted the movie’s irreverence, and events may border on the caricaturistic at times, but these are very real and relatable characters caught in an all-too-familiar environment of outdated sentiments and eternal disappointment. The fact that they never give up on attaining the unattainable is what endears them to us so strongly.

Clark – Despite all the little problems, it really is fun, isn’t it?

Ellen – No. But with every new day, there’s fresh hope.

Patriarch, Clark (Chevy Chase), is the person responsible for spearheading their idealistic conquest to take in the sights and sounds of the good ol’ U. S. of A. His bubblegum-popping offspring may have preferred the relatively stress-free option of flying to their destination, as would his long-suffering wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), but Clark is all about making memories, and memories they will surely make. In preparation for their monumental trip, old man Griswold visits a local car dealership with his son, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall). He is there to pick up a very specific car in a very specific colour, but instead leaves with an inferior model in a ghastly colour. The shyster who tricks him is our first example of a society that had slipped into the moral toilet, and as a lowly byproduct of a Capitalistic society, Clark has no choice but to eat it.


This is a relatively cynical opening, and things are about to get a whole lot worse for the Griswolds as they attempt to reach theme park Wally World after first collecting their aged aunt and visiting monument after pointless monument, because they’re Americans and that’s what they’re supposed to do. For Clark, this is a chance to mingle with the good, honest folk of the country’s heartland, but he seems to remember his own childhood adventures through the rose-tinted lens of adolescence, and those people are no as accommodating as he may have expected, a fact that becomes increasingly hard for him to shrug off.

Not only are the people uninterested in his vacational good cheer , they are beset on making his trip miserable by making a quick buck at the expense of the smiling nimrod in the shoddy station wagon. First they want money in exchange for directions. They overcharge him for accommodation, car repairs, anything, in fact, that they can attach a dollar to, and when Clark wanders into the vast and unforgiving desert in search of help for his family, the natives neglect to aid his perilous predicament, instead calling him an asshole and leaving him at the mercy of the potentially fateful afternoon sun. This isn’t a country united by pride and sentiment, it is a savage landscape of selfish beasts.

National Lampoon's Vacation Crash

This is mostly in good taste, and the film’s comedy is derived from a love-hate relationship with the motherland and its moral decline, highlighting everyday misfortunes that we can all relate to, and which are amusing as a consequence. Having said that, National Lampoon’s Vacation is almost four decades old, and some of its humour has no place in the modern world, which is pretty ironic considering this is basically a commentary on declining values. If a scene in which a gang of black, inner-city hustlers steal the family’s hubcaps is borderline offensive, then an incestuous revelation from Audrey’s Hillbilly cousin is the kind of discriminatory gag that society can do without. But times, as they say, change, and in this case for the better.

Other ‘poor taste’ jokes are much more palatable, and often quite hilarious. A scene in which Clark is pulled over having driven off with his dog still tied to the bumper is cringe-worthy, but harmless, while the image of their dead aunt tied to the roof of their station wagon is the stuff of legend. The movie was based on the short story Vacation ’58 by cult director John Hughes. Hughes was relatively unknown back in ’83, and his original screenplay was altered to shift the focus to Chevy Chase’s character, which may go some way to explaining the somewhat surreal introduction of Clark’s Ferrari-sporting, who was initially meant for the hormone-afflicted Rusty, whose perspective the story was initially told from. It is perhaps no surprise then, that the immensely talented Anthony Michael Hall would soon become Hughes’ go-to-star.

National Lampoon's Love Me

In the end, it was probably the correct decision from director Harold Ramis to shift the movie’s focus. Chevy Chase’s career had suffered something of a downturn at the time following commercial bombs Class Reunion and Movie Madness, but this is very much his movie, and the movie’s themes are much more relevant to he head of the family. Nobody deliverers this particular brand of dry wit like Chevy, one that explodes in a side-splitting torrent of bad language as his ideal dreams collapse all around him, resulting in a brief flirtation with infidelity and a ludicrous, cops-and-robbers style stick-up.

Clark – I think you’re all fucked in the head. We’re ten hours from the fucking fun park and you want to bail out. Well I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes! I must be crazy! I’m on a pilgrimage to see a moose. Praise Marty Moose! Holy Shit!

In the end, the movie pangs of midlife-crisis as an increasingly wild-eyed Clark sees his tenuous command on proceedings slip agonisingly away from him. In a newly globalised world of long working hours and growing technological advancement, Clark rarely gets to see his kids, who would much rather smoke pot and play video games than see what the great outdoors has to offer, and in their ill-fated trip he sees a chance to put things right.

National Lampoon's photo

In reality, Clark is a middle-aged father who has begun to feel that the world is passing him by, and his trip seems to be about rediscovering his own youth, if not from the make-believe sentiments he initially clings to, then from the thrill of female attraction, and ultimately the realisation that family is everything, no matter how overbearing or dysfunctional.

Cedric Smarts

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