National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
★★ / ★★★★
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.
Funny Farm (1988)
★★ / ★★★★
Happy couple Andy (Chevy Chase) and Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith Osborne) decided to move out of New York City and into the country so Andy could work on his novel. They anticipated to live an easier life with far less worries while in the country. But from the minute the Farmers left the city, something went wrong in every turn starting with the movers getting lost overnight. Eventually, the unfortunate events and eccentric small town ceased to become amusing as various elements challenged Andy and Elizabeth’s marriage. I am the most difficult person to please when it comes to slapstick comedy so I was surprised that I actually enjoyed this film. The movie offered a variety of situations in which something funny happened and not simply relying on, for example, someone carrying a big cake tripping over a cord and the cake goes flying onto someone’s face. I liked its humor most when it came at the most unexpected time. For instance, a typical gardening session led someone to find a coffin buried in the yard, a modern-looking door from the outside turning out to be somewhat of an old-fashioned door when touched, and the ongoing joke about pay phones inside the home. But my favorite scene was when Andy, beaming with excitement and happiness, allowed his wife to read a few chapters from the book he had been working on for quite some time. Her reactions, from being forced to read during their anniversary to her struggle in expressing what she really thought of the novel in progress, were priceless. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud because most of us could relate to her situation. Do we tell the absolute truth or do we sugarcoat certain facts (which essentially is tantamount to lying)? However, I would have given the movie a recommendation if the last twenty or thirty minutes did not become so depressing. What kept the script afloat for the majority of its running time was the couple’s natural chemistry and ability to forgive each other for just about anything. So when the story took a serious turn and the friction between the couple was magnified, I stopped having fun and the subsequent attempts at humor felt forced. The pacing took a drastic halt and it did not feel like the same movie I was watching before. “Funny Farm,” directed by George Roy Hill, had great energy behind its creative ideas. When the jokes worked, they worked well, and when they did not, it was almost forgivable. Aside from its misguided last third, the rest might have been formulaic but, as a whole, it was still delightful to watch.
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Three friends in their forties who weren’t happy with the way their lives turned out (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry) and a twenty-year-old with no social life (Clark Duke) accidentally went back in time after getting into a hot tub with magical powers. As ridiculous as the premise was, after watching the trailers, I was open to what it was about to bring. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as funny as I thought it would be. I think the picture was stuck in a rut for too long; when the four were transported back to 1986, the characters spent too much of their time trying to stick to what they did fourteen years ago so that they wouldn’t accidentally change the future. As a result, the film felt stagnant and boring because the characters knew exactly what they had to do. Fortunately, the script eventually rose above the formula and really let the characters do whatever they wanted with little disregard to the consequences of their actions. Out of the four actors, I thought Corddry was the most effective because of his histrionics. Cusack, Duke, and Robinson pretty much played themselves and they kind of blended among each other. While I thought the nostalgia was there (music, fashion, the way people spoke, the bad special effects–which I loved), the picture needed a lot of focus. There were times when I was very confused where the story was going and why the characters were doing certain things. Also, lessons like “friends always stick with each other” was too after school special for me. It was corny, unnecessary and, quite frankly, unfunny. Still, I enjoyed watching the supporting actors such as Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan and Chevy Chase. They didn’t have much screen time but their appearances were nice breaks from the randomness that were happening. I’ve heard a lot of people claiming that “Hot Tub Time Machine,” directed by Steve Pink, was like “The Hangover” or that it was as funny or funnier than that surprising box-office success. I very much disagree because I felt like “The Hangover” had more control of its material; it didn’t feel as convoluted as this film nor did it feel like it was trying too hard. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy “Hot Tub Time Machine” in parts but there were extended time periods when I wasn’t laughing. I love everything about the 80s (especially fashion and hair that were so out there) but I felt like this movie didn’t take advantage of that era. I felt like the characters were trapped in that ski resort instead of owning it since it was their second time living through that part of their lives. When you’ve got a ridiculous (but fun) premise, you have to deliver in a big way and make sure to rise above the title and avoid using it as a crutch.