When I reached Stripes in my Bill Murray project, it made me realize just how fond I was of Harold Ramis, and how silly it is that I haven't seen a lot of the films he either directed or acted in. So while I don't plan to review his entire career, I wanted to fill in a few gaps while I could. And to do that, we have to put Ghostbusters on a slight delay and take a look at National Lampoon's Vacation. I think I had largely avoided this one until now because it stars Chevy Chase. But it seems the combination of direction by Ramis and a script written by John Hughes means it was pretty silly of me to avoid this one for so long.
The movie had me laughing pretty early on and continued to do so for most of its run time. It balances this touching story of a father who really wants to spend some quality time with his family with a lot of absurd and crazy humor, and with the exception of maybe one scene, never feels uneven or out of place for it. They even managed to make Chase likable some of the time, though it does fade.
What probably made me laugh the most is some of the more quiet, subtle humor that happens. After having driven off the road and crashed the family's car, Chase sits down to have a talk with his son, an incredibly young looking Anthony Michael Hall. He puts his glasses on, and without any acknowledgement from either character, the glasses split in half and each piece falls off his face one at a time. It's so simple that you could almost miss it if you weren't paying attention, and it's great.
A lot of films will get a quick sympathetic response from the audience by threatening animals. The clearest example of this I always think of is Apocalypse Now, where you've seen lots of death already, but then suddenly they pull out some puppies and you go "No! Don't hurt the puppies!" It's intentional and kind of genius, because the film is pointing out to you that you should also care about all the men you've seen die up to this point too. In Vacation, the complete opposite happens. If you read in a description "Clark ties the dog to the rear bumper and then drives off" it sounds absolutely horrifying. But this is a mean and nasty dog that has done nothing but bites the ankles of our family and pee all over their lunches, and since we never actually see the poor thing being dragged, there's a great bit of humor here. The cop who pulls him over is furious, and Clark is trying so hard to care about this dog who has made his life miserable for hours now that it just works. It happens again when their miserable, grouchy aunt dies and all they really want to do is get rid of the body. And you want them to do it too, because at this point you're hoping they reach Walley World just as badly as Clark wants to get them there.
The only part of the film I don't care for is Clark's obsession with the woman he sees on the highway, played by Christie Brinkley. While I understand that it's largely to point out that Clark is feeling a little smothered on the vacation and she represents freedom, it still goes a little too far into making him a jerk, especially since he gets far enough to get naked in a pool with her. Add to that that his wife shrugs it all off and I can't help but feel like this is the one part of the film that doesn't really work.
This film does have a loose tie to Bill Murray, in that his older brother Brian Doyle-Murray appears as the guy running the campground they stay at. The role isn't all that different from characters Bill himself often played. Ramis does not appear in the film at all, but does deliver a line off camera toward the end. Besides his comedic direction, I was also really impressed with the scenes where the family rides the roller coasters, that did a good job of reminding me what it was like to ride one.
Overall I was really impressed with the film, and if like me you've been putting this one off because you assumed it was low brow, I highly recommend you giving it a chance.