Throughout the Vacation movies, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) functions as a kind of cheerful, benevolent weapon of mass destruction. His ambition is simple, but noble: To act as catalyst for the greatest vacation, holiday gathering, or whatever ill-fated event the screenwriters have devised for him. His currency as a husband and father is measured solely by his family’s contentment. Of course, this fierce dedication also renders poor Clark into a pig-headed zealot. By the end of each movie, all of his plans and pure intentions have fallen into sizzling, radioactive ruin.
For this third installment, screenwriter John Hughes flips the story around. Rather than have the Griswolds take their bumbling shenanigans on the road, they invite the chaos into their home. This Christmas, Clark corrals their entire rogue’s gallery of grouchy, judgmental in-laws over for an extended stay. Naturally, his quest for perfection takes him off the rails and into the ravine: This includes 25,000 twinkling lights and a Christmas tree large enough for Rockefeller Plaza. For the pièce de résistance, Clark plans to gift his family with a brand new swimming pool.
Of course, that’s assuming the Griswolds survive that long. With so many people cooped under one roof, nerves quickly begin to fray. Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), Clark’s alarmingly patient wife, starts smoking again. Kids Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis) are fed up with the squabbling old people tottering around their house. They soon start fighting each other.
Turns out, all that drama is just the warm up. No sooner has Clark lit up a Bellagio’s worth of Christmas lights than Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his kin crash the party. For series newbies, Eddie is a force of nature–a hillbilly hurricane, trapped in an undersized leisure suit. He’s friendly, belligerent, and oblivious, all in equal measure. Eddie and his family lumber in, driving an RV that looks like a piece of Titanic wreckage on wheels. His kids are sweet, innocent, and slightly gross. (The boy has “a lip fungus they ain’t identified yet.”)
It’s no small task for an actor to steal a Vacation movie out from under Chevy Chase, but that’s exactly what Quaid does here. Some characters are more fun to write than others, and you can practically hear Hughes giggling as he supplies Eddie’s cornpone gibberish. (“She falls down a well, her eyes go cross. Gets kicked by a mule, they go back to normal.”) Christmas Vacation probably could’ve been a passable comedy without Quaid’s ignorant swagger, but his off-the-wall presence elevates this movie to legendary status.
And that’s not to discount Chase himself. As a celebrity, Chase has accrued a reputation for being a prickly diva, with an ego that makes him almost unmanageable. That’s a real shame, because it distracts from an undeniable truth: For all his faults, Chase is a comedic powerhouse. His knack for punishing physical comedy is matched only by his deadpan sarcasm. Here, he takes a sounder beating more than anybody this side of Wile E. Coyote. At the same time, Chase gifts Clark with a durable sense of decency. He keeps his temper in check, until the movie piles on too much. When Clark inevitably goes batty and unloads a torrent of profanity onto his family, it’s a meltdown for the ages. Through it all, in this pitiful odyssey from milquetoast to maniac, Chase is unfailingly hilarious.
I worked at a wine store for many years, and I can testify the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is the busiest of the year–by a wide margin. Yes, people buy booze as gifts and bosses throw big office parties. But, the biggest reason for most of that surge comes from one simple fact: People have to get sauced to put up with their relatives.
Christmas Vacation has endured as an evergreen holiday flick because it rings with so…much…truth. Audiences laugh at how outlandish this movie is, but also because they see hints of their own family embedded within its comedy. Most of us can admit to a Cousin Eddie somewhere on the family tree; others can point to mean-spirited in-laws. There might even be a Rottweiler with a sinus problem. If we’re lucky, some of us can tell the tale of a Clark Griswold–someone who loves so much and tries so hard, he’s willing to risk every ounce of sanity to make Christmas magical.
97 min. PG-13. HBOMax.