Day 5: ‘Christmas Vacation’ – 12 Days of Christmas Movies

Christmas Vacation is a holiday tradition for me, and for that reason I am in no position to judge the film. There are certain movies we all associate with memories, and so they transcend quality and stand outside of criticism and comparative analysis. Regardless of what arguments we hear or better films we see, some movies will always have a special place in our hearts.

For me, Christmas Vacation is one of those films. I have watched it all my life, and I associate it with Christmas – and so, it always works. Nothing can change that.

This year I decided to be a little more critical as I watched it, if only for the purpose of this blog post. I can be honest and admit there are some flaws; in an alternate universe where quality matters, Christmas Vacation wouldn’t mesh well with the part of me who demands something well-crafted and coherent. That said, it’s still a genuinely funny movie, one that makes me laugh despite having seen it dozens of times.

The great humor aside, I admit the story of the Griswold family sharing Christmas together doesn’t have much of a central premise. It’s disjointed, and each outrageous gag could be easily woven into dozens of other films. With a couple noteworthy exceptions – like Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie – the characters are underdeveloped and exist only for the purpose of a funny line or an awkward momentary conflict.

On its face, the flaws are abundant. As far as film craftsmanship goes, the direction is adequate to sell us on the moments of visual comedy, such as a burst of flame in the background as the Grisolwold family Christmas tree spontaneously erupts, or a Hitchcockian dolly shot when a squirrel chitters fear into the in-laws. But in general, the value of each scene is entirely dependent upon content, not craft. You won’t find much to point to in the way of visual storytelling, and I can’t see Christmas Vacation getting much run-time in film schools.

Yet, it works. Each and every time I watch Eddie pile absurd amounts of dog food into a shopping cart at Wal-Mart, or witness the dining room table shake cartoonishly as a dog vomits up a turkey bone, I feel a sense of fun and enjoyment that stems as much from familiarity as it does the scenes themselves – and I think that’s OK. In the end, even if I hadn’t seen Christmas Vacation before, it’d still be funny enough to make me laugh. But the fact I’m so comfortable with the movie is probably what pushes me to love it. And man, do I love it.

I forgot Christmas Vacation was written by the great John Hughes, best known (in my mind) as the auteur behind Planes, Trains and Automobiles – a comedy that I consider nothing short of a masterpiece. Hughes’s patented over-the-top visual humor and knack for great dialogue can be identified throughout Christmas Vacation. What’s missing is the emotional payoff – the moment of warmth where I feel a strong connection to the characters I bonded with over laughs.

Christmas Vacation doesn’t have an emotional high. Instead, the sheer chaos expands like a bubble, bursting in the form of an unnecessary – but admittedly hysterical – destructive police raid. And yet, for a film that sells itself completely on the ability to get a laugh within an isolated moment, I think the ending it goes with is perfect. Besides, at this point Christmas Vacation is one of many traditions that hold some larger psychological significance for me. It’s like the cartoons I watched with my brother every Christmas Eve, or sugar cookies my mom makes every year – Christmas Vacation shaped the way I experience the holidays, and it elicits only positive sentiment.

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