★★ / ★★★★
It is summer and the Griswolds are ready for their annual trip to Walley World. Since the theme park is located in California, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) suggests that it might be easier for their family of four to take the plane. But, no, Clark (Chevy Chase) insists that it is important they spend time together as a family and a way to do that is to drive their newly exchanged station wagon from windy Chicago to sunny Los Angeles. Supposedly, getting there is half the fun but they begin to encounter one disaster after another the second they try to leave their garage.
Although hailed as one of the greatest comedies of all time, I just did not find “National Lampoon’s Vacation” to be very funny. It is slightly amusing, sure, but it lacks the momentum of jokes tumbling over one another that will inevitably trigger uproarious laughter. Instead, it feels more like a series of sketches put together, the idea of reaching Walley World being the glue that barely holds it all together.
I suppose part of the joke is that we are never supposed to believe that an idiotic, privileged, and inexperienced middle-class family like the Griswolds can actually make it to the next county line—let alone trekking across the country. It is a spoof and I was down for the ride. Some bits are amusing like their accidental visit to the ghettos of St. Louis, Missouri with Clark urging his children to “look at [all the] plight!” as if they were in an African safari. But most of its jokes run for too long. We actually get to the point where black residents furtively steal from them.
The running gags get tired fast. Even I have a limit when it comes to watching the number of times luggages can fall off a car. And they never seem to run out of them. Eventually, the Griswolds get stuck in the deserts of Arizona. There are only so many jokes they can pull off when it comes to how hot and dry it is. Each one is attempted. Worse, every one of them is exaggerated to a painful second-degree burn. Since we can easily predict what is coming, the pacing drags. It is one thing to be stuck in the desert with your family because you care for them. But it is another to be stuck with strangers you can barely stand.
If the script had given its characters real motivations, real feelings, and real thoughts, perhaps they would have been less aggravating. Several attempts at man-to-man conversations are made between father and son (Anthony Michael Hall), but their exchanges are played dumb. Instead of giving us a chance to identify with them in real ways–even for only a couple of minutes—the screenplay seems intent on making fun of the cardboard cutouts. “Look at the stupidity of this white family”—that is what I got out of it. Aren’t vacations supposed to make us feel good?
At least one recurring gag in “Vacation,” written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, never outstays its welcome. When Clark’s family is asleep or not paying attention, a blonde woman driving a Ferrari (Christie Brinkley) drives parallel to the Wagon Queen Family Truckster to flirt with Clark—and he with her. Their scenes together reflect that of silly commercials targeted for men on the verge of a midlife crisis: the fantasy of being on the radar of a beautiful woman who can have any man she wants. Yes, it pokes fun of the woman in the fancy car but the joke is also on Clark. Everyone is and in on the joke.