National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 4K UHD Review: Calamitous Christmas Classic

Clark Griswold, the epitome of the American Middle-Class male, is on a slow burn. He has a vision of perfection. He has a faith in the systems that uphold him. But he doesn’t pay attention to details. That’s part of the faith; things should just work. And when they don’t, and when the systems betray him… he goes a little nuts.

That’s the story of the National Lampoon Vacation stories, where a classic American theme is subverted by reveling in its shortcomings. Christmas Vacation (where there is no vacation – Clark is still going in to work through most of the action) is about the way Clark’s ideal Christmas fails to idealize, with funny (occasionally hilarious) results.

Though John Hughes wrote all the three original Vacation movies, they have the loosest sense of continuity. Chevy Chase plays Clark. Beverly D’Angelo is still his smoking wife. The children have the same names, though their ages are apparently randomized by whatever actors they find; in this case, Juliette Lewis, and Johnny Galecki.

They also have a rather loose sense of plotting. Clark wants a classic big family Christmas. That means big Christmas tree, big Christmas lights, and a big Christmas bonus to make the next year great for his family. He hasn’t received the bonus yet, but he’s already spent it on a new family pool. It’s not the most practical expense for a Chicago home, but damn it, he wants it.

Of course, step by step his perfect Christmas fails. This culminates in a perfectly terrible Christmas dinner, the burning down of the tree, and the arrival of his real, terrible bonus. Along the way, smaller disasters occur. His in-laws cannot stop bickering. His lights don’t always work. Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid, from the original Vacation) arrives with his weird kids and snotty dog, named Snot.

Clark is a complete bourgeoisie, and Christmas Vacation is a class-conscious film. The villain is his stingy boss. The constant brunt of Clark’s antics are the yuppies next door, whom we assume we hate because they are yuppies. A constant in John Hughes films is that the middle to upper middle class are the sympathetic characters who deserve nice lives and try to make things nicer for others. Everyone else is the problem.

And it’s true in this story. Though he is often oblivious, Clark never intentionally seeks to be anybody else’s problem, and makes nice when he should make a stand… until the end. When he’s pushed over the brink. His fury at all the factors that get in the way of his nice Christmas, and nice life, is palpable.

Christmas Vacation is no kind of polemic, though, and has its fair share of hilarious sequences. It’s widely regarded as a Christmas classic. I’ve never been that warm to it, even when I saw it in its original run in the theater. Chevy Chase is an actor I’ve always found angry and unsympathetic. Though a great physical comedian, I’ve never felt a connection to him as an audience member. That relatively minor misgiving is not really a check against this film, where Clark is always half-sympathetic, half exasperating.

The comedy and characterizations are generally broad, but it pulls off the occasional subtler joke. My favorite is when Clark is delivering a present to his boss, and it’s clearly the exact same gift that every other corporate suck-up has given him.

The 4K transfer is handsome, and filmic enough, though the movie is not a visual show-off piece. It’s a decent comedy, a pretty good Christmas film. If you love it, this is a fine enough release, though bare bones on the extras. I like how the movie focuses on the frustration of Christmas expectations. It might have benefited from a more focused plot and a less episodic structure. But I’m told it’s a classic, who am I to argue?

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has been released on 4K UHD by Warner Brothers. This release includes a Blu-ray with the film as well as the 4K UHD disc. The only extra on either is a commentary track with Randy Quaid, Beverly D’Angelo, Johnny Galecki, Miriam Flynn, Director Jeremiah S. Chechik and Producer Matty Simmons.

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Kent Conrad

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