National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

Director: Harold Ramis

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Imogene Coca, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Randy Quaid, Christie Brinkley, John Candy

Vacations, like life itself, don’t always go according to schedule. Oh, you can spend hours carefully mapping out every segment of the journey and calculate the time, distance and amount of gas your car will need to get you where you’re going, but you’ll never be able to account for any of the screw-ups and obstacles that might pop up. You could manage to pick the one week of the year when everyone else has the same vacation plan as you do, leaving you stuck in traffic longer than the actual vacation. Did you think of whether or not your car might die on you? No problem, you’ve got a reliable source ready and willing to supply a rental. Too bad you forgot to do a thorough inspection before you took it off their hands. Now you’re going to have a bumpy ride the whole way, with the sneaking suspicion that you’d have been better off with your own vehicle. God help you and your family if the hotels you’ve vetted turn out to be nothing like the brochure… IF that four-wheeled piece of junk doesn’t leave you in the middle of nowhere first. Mother said there’d be days like this. She just forgot to mention how much these days would make you wish you’d stayed at home.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) has taken it upon himself to drive the family from their home in Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California, where they will have memories to last a lifetime at the Walley World amusement park (an obvious stand-in for Disneyland). That they will arrive at their destination is hardly a spoiler. What they will have to go through in order to get there is what drives “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Clark has the family’s route planned out (remember, this was well before the days of Google Maps/MapQuest, and long before the Internet itself), even picking out the exact model of automobile for the voyage, but he hadn’t figured in the possibility of the auto dealer deliberately giving him the wrong car and destroying his old one before he had the chance to get it back.

The drive includes stops in St. Louis, Missouri, Dodge City, Kansas, and even a comically brief visit to the Grand Canyon. Along the way, Clark is shoehorned into taking on an extra passenger, the most hated of all of his relatives: Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca), and her ill-tempered dog, Dinky. That much alone would make just about anyone else turn the car around and head straight back for Chicago. For wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron), there is ample opportunity to make this very suggestion… but not Clark. He is determined that his family is going to have fun on this trip if it kills him.

“National Lampoon’s Vacation” is the first in a series of comedy adventures starring the Griswold family. The sequels are “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” (1985), “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989), “Vegas Vacation” (1997), and a 2003 made-for-TV “Christmas Vacation” spinoff sequel featuring Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), as well as the 2010 online short “Hotel Hell Vacation.” The series has a running gag where the children are never played by the same actors, established by Hall and Barron’s recasting in “European Vacation.”

Although there is much love for “Christmas Vacation,” it is the original “Vacation” which is widely accepted as being the best of the lot. At least a part of this is due to the talented cast. Chevy Chase is at his all-time best as the optimistic if somewhat dense Clark, whose calm is slowly unraveling throughout the drive to California. His funniest scene is when Clark finally snaps at his family, who are insisting they go home short of Walley World after all the ordeals they’ve had to go through. It’s neat to see Anthony Michael Hall at such an early point in his career. Long before he starred in the TV series “The Dead Zone,” bullied Johnny Depp in “Edward Scissorhands,” featured as the youngest ever cast member of “Saturday Night Live” during its much maligned 1985-’86 season, and before John Hughes’ teen comedies made him a household name, here is Anthony Michael Hall as the braces-wearing first-born son of Clark W. Griswold. Hall’s talent shines through even at this stage. I especially love the way he shows that Rusty can see through his dad’s bullshit whenever Clark is struggling to avoid the truth. Special recognition goes to Imogene Coca, who pretty much steals the show as Aunt Edna. It’s probably her most recognizable film role, but Coca’s career in comedy spans back to the very beginnings of television, starring alongside the late, great Sid Caesar in “Your Show of Shows” from 1950 to 1954.

Sadly, Caesar is not the only legendary figure which the Comedy Community lost in February 2014. Harold Ramis is best known as Egon Spangler in “Ghostbusters” and its sequel… but as a director/screenwriter, he is responsible in one way or another for most the major comedies of the 1980’s not directed by John Hughes. The résumé of Harold Ramis includes screenwriting credits for 1978’s “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), “Caddyshack” (1980), “Stripes” (1981), “Ghostbusters” (1984), “Ghostbusters 2” (1989), “Groundhog Day” (1993), “Analyze This” (1999) and “Analyze That” (2002), as well as memorable supporting roles in “As Good as It Gets” (1997) and “Knocked Up” (2007). Ramis died on February 24, 2014, but his endlessly quotable body of work ensures him of a very special brand of immortality. Harold Ramis and John Hughes (who also left us far too soon), two of my favorite comedy writers, only had the opportunity to work on a movie together once. Although “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is not considered the most epic comedy of all-time, nor is it the most beloved of either man’s career, it is still a fantastically funny movie by any stretch of the imagination. Should your holiday plans be torn asunder, “Vacation” is the movie that will help you laugh it off. It could be worse… You could be the Griswolds.

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