To celebrate the summer and to coincide with an impending Father’s Day, I am reposting this piece on National Lampoon’s Vacation. I reassert that the film is a formidable contribution to American humor, a fact made even more evident by the lame updated version of the film released in 2015 (simply titled Vacation), written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. The return to the Griswold family featured an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) repeating the desperate but loving efforts of his father all those years ago. The film is just plain awful but still managed to make substantive money at the box office. I see that success as testament to the legacy of the original film along with the enduring appeal of disastrous family vacations in the American psyche. The original film remains the seminal statement of this beautiful and dysfunctional family ritual.
In the summer of 1983, Americans were treated to one of the best comedy films to examine the American family vacation and its inescapable heart of darkness: National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, who based the screenplay on his short story “Vacation ’58.” The film stands as the best cultural document to exploit the humor of the American family vacation, that mainstream celebration reasserting the right to own the landscape and be miserable in the process–and all at great expense. There is no cultural behavior that is so consistently marked with promise year after year and also, in equal proportions, disappointment–unless we talk about marriage itself, but I dare not suggest that.
Few movies tapped into the zeitgeist more effectively than Vacation. This is not only evidenced by its success in the marketplace, immediately in that big first summer (most online sources assert a box office of $61,000,000 and a budget somewhere around $15 million) ; then also with the continuing payoff from the sequels it encouraged and the high-rotation syndication it has earned for the last thirty years. There are few film or television families with greater reach into American culture than the Griswolds.
The film is especially poignant to American fathers who, no matter what other factors come into play, enter upon this challenge as if they are performing a noble duty to God and Country. (I hasten to add that women–mothers–have their own nightmares of the family vacation, primarily built around having to recreate the domestic space in any and all spaces occupied by the family–talk about exhaustion!–but Vacation is driven in all ways by Clark, the failed provider.) When a father begins a family vacation, the task is taken on out of a feeling of obligation first and foremost, not a desire for relaxation. As Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) puts it; the family is on a “quest for fun,” a perpetual search just as elusive as any effort to find the Holy Grail.
It is the delving into the pathetic psyche of the mainstream American father who chooses year after year to endure the ritual that makes Vacation such a compelling example of American humor. Every father is Clark Griswold, a bumbling simpleton with a good heart but very little understanding of his limitations.
Chevy Chase, in his dream role, deserves an Oscar in his creation of Clark Griswold simply for making him worthy of our sympathy. He is both ridiculous and believable. He is a first-rate idiot, bless his heart. But he keeps trying because he understands what all American family vacation providers understand: he cannot stop. Stopping is failure. Deep down he must always believe that the obeisance of such a powerful ritual will be repaid. Marty Moose owes us.
As I write this, I am on vacation, and I am exhausted. I can’t wait to get home so that I can get some rest. I am going to float the idea of leaving a day early. But in the meantime, today is for sea kayaks. The four of us will explore like Lewis and Clark. The sea looks a bit angry today, but what could go wrong? Good family fun, with a hint of danger, or at least….hassle.
Long live Harold Ramis.
Although he has never fully received his full due in the popular imagination on the par with one of his most devoted collaborators, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis is nonetheless a vital figure of American film comedy. A major creative voice behind popular comedies from the late 1970s throughout the 1990s. Ramis deserves an enduring place in the canon of American humor. Consider his productive six-year run as writer, in particular: Animal House (1978); Meatballs (1979); Caddyshack (1980); Stripes (1981); National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983); and Ghostbusters (1984). He would later put together him most ambitious comedic film narrative with Groundhog Day (1993), a beautiful romantic comedy. For the long 1980s (I just coined that phrase–the long 1980s, which runs from 1977 -1992, from “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols to the election of Bill Clinton, but I digress), no other director/writer/actor was so integral to establishing the comedy best of the era while also effectively drawing on mainstream American comedic traditions.
His timing, his content, his comic framing were all on point. May his memory and that Egon hair stick with us.
For my take, the four films that should remain firmly within our popular and critical imaginations are Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. They exploit the most persistent and beloved of American comedic tropes–the tension between mainstream forces of respectability and the marginal forces of subversion, or, to be more concise: the snobs versus the slobs.
From the barbarians at the gates who emerged Animal House to the subversive caddy-underworld of an elite country club, to the ne’er-do-well losers who join the army out of desperation, to the bumbling, ever-failing American suburban father–the beloved marginal characters in these Ramis films exploit our communal desires to root for the underdogs, the Cinderella stories out of nowhere. Out of everywhere.