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The Griswold Family's Christmas From Hell
on April 15, 2004
It's amazing that Chevy Chase wasn't maimed or killed during the making of this movie. I know, there were plenty of stunt players who fell off the roof, crashed through the attic, were flung about into brick walls, etc.---but still! Chevy, who had a well-publicized stint in the Betty Ford Clinic for addiction to painkillers (due to extreme back pain caused by, of all things, his numerous falls on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1970's while spoofing then-President Gerald Ford---how ironic is that???), certainly took on a certain level of risk in reprising his role as the perpetually clumsy, but good-intentioned, WASP patriarch Clark Wilhelm Griswold, Jr. in this, the third installment of the VACATION series by Chase's old comedy troupe, National Lampoon.
Having not seen (as of yet, believe it or not) either VACATION or EUROPEAN VACATION, I was a bit unfamiliar with the main characters; however, CHRISTMAS VACATION got me to know them real fast. I have to admit, I have not been a Chevy Chase fan since the '70's, during and immediately after his SNL days. (Let's face facts, the show made him an instant star, but he was never really one of the funniest members of the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players.) However, I believe that he gives a truly inspired comedic performance in CHRISTMAS VACATION. I'm not even referring to the copious physical comedy he displays. I'm actually talking about his comedic acting! I love the manic energy with which Chase infuses his role, and the crazed look in his eye when his character is pushed over the edge. Beverly D'Angelo, as patient but frequently unamused wife Ellen, provides a good low-key foil for his over-the-top antics. She's well-cast and, I must say, beautiful.
As far as acting talent goes, this film has no shortage in this department. A pre-stardom Juliette Lewis is welcome as Griswold daughter Audrey, and a very young Johnny Galecki is engaging as her kid brother Russell (three years before he was cast as Darlene's lazy boyfriend David on the hit TV show "Roseanne"). We also get memorable performances from E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, an unrecognizable Dianne Ladd, and a hysterically funny William Hickey. Rounding out the mix is Randy Quaid as filthy slob Cousin Eddie (who parks his trailer in the driveway), Nicholas Guest and Julia-Louis Dreyfus as the bland and stuck-up neighbors next door, and Brian Doyle-Murray who serves up good moments as Clark's old crabby boss.
The problem with CHRISTMAS VACATION is that, while it does contain some very funny scenes with lots of great, memorable one-liners, it is marred by inferior direction on the part of first-time director Jeremiah Chechik. He tends to interlace the fast-paced physical scenes with long, slow ones that grind the movie to a dead halt every time. While I didn't expect the level of non-stop, lightning-paced zaniness a la AIRPLANE!, these extended slow breaks (that usually focus on a character staring dreamily into the sky) are awkwardly placed and paced, and thereby create an uneven viewing experience. However, John Hughes' smart and wickedly funny script pretty much saves the day. I wouldn't add this to the list of perennial must-see Christmas films (such as A CHRISTMAS STORY or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), but CHRISTMAS VACATION does offer a lot of fun for the whole family (except for kids under the age of 10, as the language is well-seasoned with four-letter words). If it does nothing else, this film should make you feel a lot better about your Christmas!