National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) – A Review


A review of the 1983 classic comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation, starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid, Imogene Coca and Christie Brinkley


Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) decides to take his family on a cross county road trip to the paradisiacal amusement park Walley World. Clark plans the trip meticulously. The family roadster gets packed, optimistic Clark takes the wheel and wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), son Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall and daughter Audrey (Dana Barron) make their way from Chicago, Illinois to California.

Clark’s enthusiasm gradually depletes as the miles rack up on the road. His vision of a family dream vacation turns into a nightmare. The Griswold’s are treated to an endless series of mishaps, detours, blown expectations, awkward reunions with distant family members, never-ending frustration and even family and pets dying on this vacation voyage.

Maybe it would have been a better idea had they flown.

National Lampoon’s Vacation became an instant hit upon its release. Written by John Hughes, directed by Harold Ramis and giving Chase one of his most popular and memorable roles, audiences flocked to see it and ever since continue to revisit the classic ‘Vacation From Hell’ comedy.

Of course, the ‘Vacation Saga’ didn’t just end here. The film spawn a franchise with later additions – European Vacation (1985), Christmas Vacation (1989) and Vegas Vacation (1997). When Chase and D’Angelo had gotten too old to headline a family comedy, the series tried the ‘reboot’ route with Ed Helms starring as grown son Rusty embarking on his own road trip to Walley World in the notorious and disgusting Vacation (2015).

National-Lampoon's-Vacation-1983-movie-film-poster-Chevy-ChaseI might as well mention National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2 (2003) with Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie being stranded on a desert island for the heck of it too. I think most casual Vacation fans aren’t even aware of its existence. There’s good reason for that.

Yep, there’s been a lot of vacationing that has been done by the Griswolds, and for me the original film still remains at the top. It’s an episodic series of nightmare vacation scenarios. Some are funnier than others, but there’s really very few gags that don’t land. It’s an enjoyable funny romp from start to finish.

I also have to add I think it had a really, really cool poster!

Chase played something against his slick, quick-witted, persona he had become known for since rocketing to fame from Saturday Night Live. He might’ve been known for his pratfalls, but there was something cool about Chase. Foul Play capitalized on featuring Chase as a romantic lead. Caddyshack he was a smug, quick-witted rich club member. Fletch again, would make Chase the smartest guy in the room.

Chase’s Clark Griswold dials back and is a slower and much more oblivious than those characters. Clark takes much longer to catch up to what’s happening. He would be eaten alive by Fletch and Ty Webb.

Clark is held up by D’Angelo, who is as supportive and understanding a wife that one could dream of. She’s easily the much more rational of the two, yet gives Clark enough leeway with his plans and knows he’s trying hard to make the perfect family vacation to invite disaster. It’s just every plan he has blows up in his face.

Chevy-Chase-Beverly-D'Angelo-National-Lampoon's-Vacation-1983-comedyOne thing, I always thought was interesting is that Clark and Ellen have a sweet, sexual marriage. They still like to get it on. They have their couple quirks of singing old songs together and don’t just play ‘Mom and Dad’. There is a romance between the two. This might be embarrassing to the kids, but it’s nice to see.

I always have a great appreciation to the simplicity of many of the smaller jokes in Vacation. They’re based on an innocuous premise, they’re setup and they’re not so outlandishly exaggerated or overdone not to be somewhat believable.

The classic gag of the family about to leave for the road and their luggage falling off the roof as Clark pulls out of the garage – that could be a genuine tik tok video today. Clark trying to find the bizarrely placed gas tank on the new station wagon. This is pretty relatable stuff.

One smaller throw away exchange I’ve always loved is when the family is driving past the St. Louis Arch. Clark points out the tourist spot to the kids and really builds it up as an exciting great thing to visit. “Hey, do you see that kids? That’s the St. Louis Arch. Gateway to the West. It’s over 600 feet tall, and there’s an elevator all the way to the top.. That’s sixty stories to you and me.” Rusty says, “Wow! Dad, can we go up on it?” To which Clark casually replies, “No.”

National-Lampoon-Vacation-Griswold-family-cast-Chevy-Chase-Beverly-D'Angelo-1983Director Harold Ramis stages every subsequent mishap with a fine hand. The setup of the joke of the Griswold’s dining at a drive-in an outdoor restaurant, the wide shot of the family station wagon and the inevitable payoff is simple and funny.

There are great supporting parts that pop up on their trip. They deliver some funny business and take their leave. It reminds me of the Golden Age of Hollywood under the old studio system. Character actors would get called in to do a role in some film shooting that day, they’d go in play their minor part, leave a memorable scene behind and then leave to do another film.

Vacation has that kind of quality for the supporting players. Eugene Levy, Randy Quaid, Imogene Coca, Miriam Flynn, James Keach, John Candy and my favorite Brian Doyle-Murray.

Chevy-Chase-Brian-Doyle-Murray-National-Lampoons-Vacation-1983-Kamp-Komfort-sceneOne little throwaway line I’ve always loved is from Brian Doyle-Murray as the watermelon eating owner of ‘Kamp Komfort’, a rundown, camp site in Colorado the Griswold’s end up staying. Clark is asked to fill out a form and asks why do you want my home address, which Doyle-Murray nonchalantly replies, “We like to send out a mailer.”

That line always gets me! The way Doyle-Murray delivers it is funnier than anything he did when he returned to the series in Christmas Vacation playing Clark’s boss.

Of course, there’s exaggeration and things get dialed up to absurd levels the closer the family gets to its destination. 

Nudity could be included in a comedy without worrying about upsetting the box office and distancing the kid audience. Gratuitous and unnecessary, maybe, but it gave adolescents something to look forward to when the movies would show up on cable.Seeing D’Angelo topless in the shower became a highlight for male teens.

The Vacation sequels would dial back on to ensure a PG-13 rating. The disgusting 2015 reboot, ironically would embrace pushing its R rating for all it’s worth.

There’s un-PC jokes that wouldn’t fly today. The very white and square family taking a detour into rough part of Chicago and looking quite out of place. Clark obliviously asking directions from stereotypical looking pimps and black street thieves snatching the family roadster’s hubcaps….oh yeah, it’s unlikely we’d see this gag in a mainstream comedy today. I still can’t but laugh with the spray painted ‘Honky Lips’ on the side of the station wagon they get.

Randy-Quaid-Chevy-Chase-Vacation-1983-Cousin-Eddie-Chevy-ChaseThen some of what goes down at Cousin Eddie’s with allusions to incest, the kids smoking weed and masterbating to Playboy magazines. It’s kind of odd rewatching the original Vacation now and be reminded what an R-rated 1980s comedy used to be.

Quaid’s Cousin Eddie immediately became a fan favorite and was brought back (even an attempt for him to star in his own ‘Vacation’ tv movie), but I never thought he was a funny as he was in the original. He became another goofy supporting character the Griswolds encounter on the road. There’s something more oblivious to his character here, like how he hands Clark the nasty beer he’s already been swilling and opens a new one for himself.

They really tried to dial up his redneck, dimwitted, inappropriate behavior later on. Quaid became a part of the ensemble and had much more of a prominent part in Christmas Vacation and Vegas Vacation. He became more exaggerated and the laughs didn’t quite flow as subtlety as when we first met him. Fans love Cousin Eddie and will quote all his lines from Christmas Vacation, so maybe it’s just me that thinks he never worked as well as a character than here.

Christie-Brinkley-Ferrari-Girl-National-Lampoons-Vacation-1983-comedySupermodel Christie Brinkley makes a famed appearance as the ‘girl in the red Ferrari’. What I find kind of interesting is that in recent years, when a comedy would use a celebrity cameo the surprise appearance is often all there is. There’s not much else they do other than show up and wave. Brinkley actually has a payoff to the running joke of Clark spotting her along the road. 

The Griswold kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron) actually act like real kids. They’re natural and likable. I don’t know what happened with movie kids, but there’s always that drive to make them too cutesy or having them act smart and funny. It can become grating. 

It’s a well oiled comedy and the laughs still hit decades later. It’s quite startling to see how far comedies have sunk when you compare the original film with the 2015 remake…reboot….kind of sequel or whatever they were calling it. Take the worst joke in the original Vacation and it easily tops ALL the humor in that 2015 trash. 

Vacation-1983-comedy-Chevy-Chase-station-wagonThe arrival to Walley World is again a memorable payoff. The ‘Chariots of Fire’ family run to the entrance moment I think plays as a dated gag now. I’m not sure if young viewers who watch the film today would have any idea what the theme song is or the film the scene is spoofing.

National-Lampoons-Vacation-1983-comedy-Chevy-Chase-Walley-World-EndingBut even if it goes over viewers heads, it still plays as a winning moment for the Griswolds. Considering the catastrophes that the family went through to get there it needed one last majestic, satisfying moment before the hammer comes down on them once again when they learn the park is closed for repairs. What a better ending could there have been? It’s a terrific payoff.

Vacation fans know the film’s original ending was reshot after test audiences were disappointed in not seeing the mythical Walley World. The original version is Clark taking Roy Wally hostage at his house. The police show up and about to arrest Clark when Wally’s daughter is revealed to be Brinkley who convinces them to drop the charges and let Clark go.

A version of that ending would later be used in Christmas Vacation.

They’ve never released the original ending, but it’s something I would be very curious to see how it plays. As the film plays now with John Candy showing up as a security guard, the family forcing him to let them enjoy the rides and swat team coming in works quite well. Even if you notice a significant difference in Hall’s height from earlier scenes.

Chevy-Chase-Beverly-D'Dangleo-Vacation-1983-comedy-Griswold-family-castAs it stands, National Lampoon’s Vacation remains one of the best and most beloved ‘family vacation comedies’. It might have spawned sequels and imitators, but it’s the original that feels as fresh and funny as when it first drove onto cinema screens.

Chase is at the top of his game, the supporting cast back him up perfectly, the movie has some great oddball characters who pop up along the way, the gags all click and the soundtrack, with the Lindsey Buckingham’s catchy ‘Holiday Road’ adds to the fun. It’s a great encapsulation of a family vacation.

For me, the original has not been topped.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *