Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s TOGA! The Reinvention of American Comedy which runs from July 17th to August 29th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Modern comedies often feel that dire need to be something more. The most recent successes all have their time to slow down and get contemplative, exploring some depths of sadness. We cannot reach our ending until the protagonist has reached bottom or learned something. You know it; it’s that slightly uncomfortable moment in the theater when the laughter stops and the silence overtakes. As if catharsis is a prerequisite to success, the comedy that lives for laughter rather than growth is quietly being dismissed. National Lampoon’s Vacation exists as a representation of the disappearing unrepentant comedy.
The John Hughes penned script is lighter than some of his most revered work, but just as marvelous. Amid all of the guffaw goading set pieces, Hughes establishes a family with strong connections. The casting is so perfect that it’s as if the characters were written for each specific actor.
At its very base, Vacation is nothing more than a road film. However, we all know that it is so much more than that. The film mixes in family dynamics, fish-out-of-water sensibilities and cartoonish slapstick. It should also be remembered that this is an R-rated comedy, mostly due to the occasional f-bomb and a quick shot of a topless Beverly D’Angelo (I know, I had forgotten about it too). Many modern R-rated comedies strive for their rating, with vulgarity ramped up to dizzying levels and every character having the mouth of a sleep-deprived trucker. But here, it is more of an afterthought. The film doesn’t need the R-rating to work, in fact if it were not for the fact that the PG-13 rating had yet to be introduced, those minor more vulgar instances may have ended up on the cutting room floor. While you will hesitate to show The Hangover or Wedding Crashers to a child (honestly, you should probably do more than merely hesitate), you may find yourself only later realizing that perhaps there are more adult themes within Vacation than you remembered.
Other than the clothes, which are decidedly 80s (damn, guys used to wear some short shorts) the film feels timeless. Regardless of modern advances there is an enduring nature to the family vacation, the parental embarrassment and persistently soul sucking nature of mandated fun. Vacation has this feeling that it just poured out of the mind of John Hughes, childhood vacation experiences communicated with minor hyperbole. The honesty in the experiences lends authenticity to even the most ridiculous set pieces. There is such care in the construction of the characters, instilling an understood back-story and established family dynamic that informs the multitude of reactions. Even when the Family Truckster goes flying off a desert ramp like a middle-aged General Lee, you aren’t riled to opposition; this makes sense for this family in their parade of pratfalls. At the end of the day, it is a film about the Griswolds as a family, and the script is careful to keep in mind the required unapologetic love that permeates their existence.
The script is bolstered by near perfect casting. When it comes to bumbling klutz, it is hard to top Chevy Chase at the top of his game. He embodies the father whose ineptitude has trouble keeping up with his own good intentions. The unflappable love for family distracts from a strong undercurrent of selfishness and an ever wandering eye. But that is the power of the comedy. We forgive Clark for his transgressions for it is just his nature, the very makeup of his person. Beverly D’Angelo and Chase communicate a relationship that feels lived in. They reveal a marriage built on such strength that it can seemingly overcome any obstacle. Ellen is more grounded than Clark but just as messed up. While, later installments would change out the child actors, to the point where it becomes an outright joke in Vegas Vacation, the first Rusty and Audrey remain the best. The inter-sibling bickering is fairly boilerplate, so it’s the parental interactions that set them apart. The pairing of Anthony Michael Hall and Chase, with Rusty possessing more confidence and insight than his father, is a minefield of subtle comedy. Sure, this is a film and the family members only actors, but they interact so familiarly that, comedy aside, it all feels so very real.
That’s where the direction comes into play. Harold Ramis has always been best behind the camera. Not to discount his acting ability, but he exists on camera as the sidekick to the more humorous (but to be fair that more humorous guy is usually Bill Murray). When he is directing, especially in his early work, he has an eye for comedic timing beyond the scripted set up and punch line. There are just as many visual jokes within the film as there are spoken. He inspires certain levity in the darkest of subject matters. You would not be faulted for not realizing just how dark parts of Vacation are. This is a film where animal cruelty, incest, death, a hostage situation and casual racism aren’t only presented but played for laughs, and laugh we do.
In the directing chair, Harold Ramis shows a deep understanding of how comedy works, milking chuckles from the most absurd of places. The comedy is so dense as to require multiple viewings, to comedy what Primer is to time travel.
There exists a conglomeration of genius that is hard to explain, a perfect storm of comedic sensibilities that coalesce to produce something immediately and eternally watchable. Vacation has a pedigree that all but guarantees laughter. The John Hughes penned script is lighter than some of his most revered work, but just as marvelous. Amid all of the guffaw goading set pieces, Hughes establishes a family with strong connections. The casting is so perfect that it’s as if the characters were written for each specific actor. Clark Griswold is a deceptively complex character with clearly defined motivations, and it’s all brought together by Chevy Chase. In the directing chair, Harold Ramis shows a deep understanding of how comedy works, milking chuckles from the most absurd of places. The comedy is so dense as to require multiple viewings, to comedy what Primer is to time travel. The story is universal and the film eminently rewatchable. National Lampoon’s Vacation is a marriage of writing, directing and acting that lives as a representation of a time when it all just works; it is an enduring comedy classic.
[notification type=”star”]94/100 ~ AMAZING. National Lampoon’s Vacation is a marriage of writing, directing and acting that lives as a representation of a time when it all just works; it is an enduring comedy classic.[/notification]