National Lampoon's Vacation (Image: Warner Bros.)

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

For all of America’s reputation as a leisure-loving country, it has a strange aversion to relaxing on holidays. More than half of employees don’t use all their vacation days, and while there are practical and economic factors behind this, there also seems to be a sense that trips aren’t worth the hassle. Air travel is universally acknowledged as a pain in the ass, while long-distance driving recalls traffic and cries of “Are we there yet?” rather than Jack Kerouac lighting out for the open road.

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To the extent that the Vacation franchise has an overarching character arc, it is in doofus dad Clark W. Griswold’s slow acceptance of this point. “Getting there is half the fun!” he announces in the character’s first appearance. By his final one, in 2015’s sequel-cum-reboot-cum-remake, he has changed his tune: “The journey sucks.”

This lesson is hammered into him over the four original films, as well as last year’s next-generation entry. However, viewing his epiphany as some kind of plotted-out evolution is giving the franchise far too much credit. Few series have as little continuity; outside of theme song “Holiday Road” and some props related to Walley World—the Disneyland stand-in that is the destination of the first film, an amusement park “run” by Mickey Mouse replacement Marty Moose—none of Clark’s earlier trips are referenced in his later ones, and any lessons learned are forgotten with the end credits.

Even the characters change. Not only are Griswold brats Rusty and Audrey played by different actors in each film—presumably to keep them near college age; it’s hard to view this tradition as a running gag as the swaps are never remarked upon—but their personalities jump around as well. Audrey goes from mischievous and playful in the first film to boy-crazy and mopey in the second, and from there to angry and rebellious (the Juliette Lewis phase), and then to someone struggling with early adulthood. Basically, whatever the story needs, that’s who the kids are.

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Mom and dad stay consistent, though, and while few would list Chevy Chase as an “everyman” actor, he makes Clark a quintessential everyman character, the embodiment of a familiar type of boomer-aged dad. Clark cares about being a good father and a good husband; he’s “the last true family man.” His myopia, tunnel vision, and delusions of competence are where most of the jokes come from, but ultimately the depiction is affectionate. There’s a sequence in Christmas Vacation, the series’ third and strongest entry, where he’s locked in his attic; the bit is slapstick, but the point of the scene is his finding and being moved to tears by home movies from his childhood. Ultimately, he wants nothing more than to spend time with his children before they leave the nest, to orchestrate memories he can’t imagine won’t be unanimously cherished. If this means going over the top, well, that’s just the American way.

Like a lot of comedy series—and this is one of the longest-running franchises of the genre—Vacation gets broader with each installment. If Clark is acted upon by fate in the first film, by the end he’s an agent of chaos, a bumbling dunderhead who should really know better. His wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), gets neutered in her own way. Though she stays loyal to her “Sparky” (an unexplained nickname that nicely establishes their affection), she goes from fairly equal player to certified supporting role, and from sexual being to blandly maternal. Three of the four original films strain the Griswold marriage, but by the fourth the issue is whether Clark appreciates her, not whether they’re passionate for each other. Sparky is there, but the spark is gone.

The idea of malaise is what fuels the first Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis from a John Hughes screenplay and story. Clark feels the family is in a rut, so he decides to force some togetherness by road-tripping from Illinois to California, a multi-day journey he plans on spacing out with detours to visit family and to see the various hot spots he deems essential (“Or perhaps you don’t want to see the world’s second-largest ball of twine, which is only four short hours away”).

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This is the kind of foolhardy plan beloved by pop-culture patriarchs, and Clark is the type to ignore dissent and force a happy face on his mistakes. After a car salesman (Eugene Levy) forces him into buying a vehicle he didn’t want, he pretends it was his choice, and when a wrong turn sends the family into a bad neighborhood, he declares it’s good to see a part of America they normally don’t: “We can’t close our eyes to the plight of the cities. Kids, you noticing all this plight?”

That sequence can play as offensive today—making it a rare example of the series’ National Lampoon heritage, which was decidedly non-PC—even if the film elsewhere becomes something of an equal-opportunity offender with its similarly stereotypical take on rural whites. (“Daddy says I’m the best at [French kissing],” says a hick girl played by Jane Krakowski.) If a film series can be said to have a breakout character, Vacation’s is undoubtedly Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, introduced here as a failed farmer who was laid off from the asbestos factory and who doesn’t qualify for disability because the plate in his head isn’t big enough.

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Cousin Eddie was seen as such an integral ingredient that he would return thrice more—including once as lead—each time with his edge lessened and his good nature increased. It’s almost surprising to see how seriously Quaid takes his role the first time out; it’s a caricature to be sure, but imbued with a certain amount of plausibility. Before he turned sitcom, Cousin Eddie had both perspective and anger over the hand he had been dealt.

That goes for the whole film, and while subversive is too strong a word, it’s definitely pointed that the Griswolds, having been robbed in the inner city, ripped off by salesmen, and taken advantage of by everyone else, wind up demanding their fun by force. “Marty Moose owes us!” Clark screams at the closed-for-repair gates of Walley World, brandishing a BB gun and taking a security guard (John Candy) hostage on roller coasters. Finding parallels to the populist rage sweeping the nation today may be overdoing it, but Vacation does tap into feelings of middle-class ennui and economic impotence, giving it a depth that has contributed to its minor-classic status.

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There’s no such edge in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, which, like the rest of the series, is more location-themed slapstick about a slow-witted family than satire. The film avoids culture-clash comedy, with few swipes against its ugly American heroes and only surface-level gags about the citizens of the nations they visit: Germans who are quick to violence, snooty French, and Englishmen who are so polite they apologize to Clark when he drives on the wrong side of the road and hits them. While European Vacation kept Hughes as a writer, the helm moved to Amy Heckerling, who demonstrated little of the wit or insight she would bring to Clueless.

European Vacation opens with the Griswolds on Pig In A Poke, a TV show where their trip is the grand prize, won by accident. While the sequence mostly seems like an excuse to get the family in goofy costumes and land easy punches against game shows (did you know the era’s hosts would hit on female players?), it actually hobbles the story in a fairly fundamental way. Because the trip is all-expenses paid, the first film’s economic subtext is gone, and because the family didn’t choose to take it, there’s not a goal that the characters are trying to reach. That removes the urgency underpinning the first film’s comedy; a version where Clark and Ellen were adamant about getting their money’s worth after saving up for the trip might have given it some necessary stakes.

The Griswolds on Pig In A Poke (complete with in-film misspelling). (Image: Warner Bros.)

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Absent that, European Vacation offers brief sketches set in the various cities the family travels to, with a couple of running subplots for the children. Audrey (Dana Hill) pines for her Stateside boyfriend (The Karate Kid’s William Zabka) so much that she refuses to enjoy herself. Rusty (Jason Lively), obsessed with glamorous European women, hires a French prostitute (mom and dad catch him, but the issue is forgotten immediately) and picks up a fräulein (leading to a moment of gratuitous nudity infamous among men of a certain age). Clark, meanwhile, is the ultimate clueless tourist; without Cousin Eddie to look down on, he basically assumes Eddie’s intelligence level. Arguably, so does the film. (A telling moment of screenwriting laziness: To show that the family has driven to the wrong house, an unseen hand simply moves the branch that covered the first digit of the street address.)

Having the gang stay home in their third outing made for the strongest film overall, allowing it to shed the inherent shagginess of the road-movie format in favor of a more cohesive story. Also—and this is somewhat surprising to realize, given the franchise’s general wackiness—Christmas Vacation may be one of the most realistic, albeit exaggerated, cinematic depictions of what celebrating Christmas is like for many families. Where most holiday features are high-concept or supernatural, set pieces here involve shopping or sledding; even if you don’t blanket your house with lights like Clark, the trouble he has getting his decorations up and working is relatable, and funnier as a result.

The film has become a perennial favorite, as important as It’s A Wonderful Life in many families’ December repertoires, because it shows the holidays as wonderful and taxing in equal measure. It understands the desire to be with extended family, but also the inherent frustration of sharing space with visitors and in accommodating everyone’s different schedules and tastes. (“I’ll be outside for… the season,” Clark decides as the in-laws descend.) Though it lacks scenes where the Griswolds attend holiday parties or bake cookies, this is about as close as Hollywood has gotten to putting everyday Christmas traditions on screen. In its sweetness and humor, this is the Vacation where John Hughes’ imprint is most visible. (He wrote the screenplay; the director is Jeremiah Chechik, who mostly does TV now.)

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In a way, Christmas Vacation is less the flip side of the summer-set original than A Christmas Story, which takes a similarly unadorned look at the season. The difference is, Story looks at the holiday from a kid’s point of view, while Vacation does it from an adult’s, meaning the fun is tinged with responsibility. It’s up to Clark and Ellen to clean up or to look after doddering relatives (William Hickey and Mae Questel, stealing the show). And while Clark delights in the rituals of his “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas”—trekking to the woods for a tree (but forgetting a saw), pulling out the Marty Moose eggnog mugs—the chaos that follows every step also drives him mad. His low point is a highlight of Chase’s career.

That outburst, incidentally, is because of a pittance of a bonus, itself the kind of relatable problem untouched by most holiday movies. There’s further pathos in the visiting Cousin Eddie, so broke he’s forced to tell his kids Santa won’t be coming this year, a subplot that bestows a certain amount of embarrassed dignity on the lug while at the same time pointing out how the popular focus of the holiday requires some serious coinage to realize. When Clark accepts that the reason for the season is family bonds, not recreating some idealized postcard of happiness, he finally gets to relax. His line, “I did it,” is a rare moment of sincere victory for him, even if he is surrounded by the flaming wreckage of a sewage explosion and SWAT team raid.

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Christmas proved to be the series’ most influential title. It broke from the first two entries by eschewing nudity and regular profanity, a move toward saccharine warmth that would persist for the back half, including the R-rated reboot. It is also the only entry to get a direct sequel, albeit of the spin-off variety.

Vegas Vacation is the one that most explicitly tries to follow in Christmas’ footprints, again by having the now-family-friendly Griswolds struggle to connect in a single setting, and again with Cousin Eddie randomly showing up (having moved to a nearby nuclear test site). The problem is, Vegas and a PG rating don’t exactly go hand in hand, even with the post-Casino Disneyfication of the city. The film wants to use Sin City’s debauchery to test Clark’s desire for family togetherness, but being unable to show said debauchery cuts it off at the knees. To wit: Audrey’s subplot involves her being lured into Vegas’ seedy underbelly, which means she dances fully clothed in a well-lit club. Ellen’s storyline involves Wayne Newton (playing himself) taking a shine to her, a seduction that only gets as sexual as their sharing pasta. Compared with the skinny-dipping Christie Brinkley subplot of the original, it’s pretty weak tea.

The film is easily the broadest and least cutting of the original four, which is perhaps to be expected, given the departure of John Hughes and the National Lampoon umbrella. Even the gambling addiction Clark develops—ranging from blackjack to coin flips—is depicted lightly; a joke at the end plays on audiences being fully aware the family will have the funds to make it back home, even outside the far-more-successful gambling Rusty (Ethan Embry) does. In other words, even the risk of losing all their money doesn’t connect the film too seriously to the series’ casual undercurrent of economic anxiety. The Clark who was so callous that he left a dead aunt on a relative’s porch is nowhere to be seen.

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The Griswolds driving off into the sunset at the end of Vegas is basically the end of the series proper. Further titles that fall under the banner take different focuses. The most recent entry, also called Vacation, shifts the action to the now-grown Rusty (Ed Helms), who decides to recreate the glowing-with-nostalgia trip to the Walley World of his youth. Like a lot of modern cash-ins on familiar-but-long-dormant intellectual properties, Vacation tries to preempt criticism about its pointlessness by calling itself out. “You want to redo a vacation from 30 years ago?” wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) asks. “Won’t that be a bit of a letdown?”

In this case, yes. The film (co-directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein) occasionally hints at the quiet despair that grounded the first—an undeveloped moment compares tedious real life with the glamour seen on social media—but mostly it tries to substitute shock for humor. There are jokes about AIDS and pedophilia, and where the family was merely complacent in its affection in the original, there’s flat-out hostility here. That, along with making Rusty a bigger putz than Clark ever was, creates a sympathy deficit it never earns back.

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As a retread, Vacation offers only a few notable changes from the original. Instead of Cousin Eddie, the clan visits Audrey (Leslie Mann) and her statuesque husband (Chris Hemsworth), but doesn’t do anything with Rusty’s feelings of inferiority, or with Hemsworth’s sexist view of gender roles. And it’s indicative of the film’s lack of faith in its audience that Hemsworth doesn’t simply appear in his underwear, to Debbie’s delight, but that the bulge in his tighty-whities is repeatedly—repeatedly—underlined.

Many jokes from the first film are repeated, with illustrative differences. Clark was forced into his “family truckster”; here, Rusty chooses to rent a terrible car (despite working as a pilot who could fly his family for free). Twice did Clark ingest bodily substances—taking a bite of a sandwich that a dog peed on, using a chamberpot to wet his toothbrush—and twice he spat immediately upon realizing his mistake. In the 2015 version, the family goes swimming in a pool of raw sewage for an extended period, ignoring the overwhelming odor. In the first film’s most notorious moment, Clark ties a dog to his car bumper and forgets about it when he drives off. When he’s confronted by the police (all we see is an empty collar), the humor comes in the tension between Clark’s genuine feelings of remorse and his relief (he hated the mutt). The latter film’s animal cruelty involves Rusty’s attempt to show off on an ATV, plowing into a cow that explodes, covering him with viscera. In all those instances, the new generation acts out of stupidity, not honest mistakes or a lack of options. Having the characters walk into their own problems shows less finesse comedically, and frankly, if you’re too stupid to realize that you’re swimming in shit, you’re not worth rooting for. (Also worth noting: How can the only modern Vacation not include a single gag about the TSA or airport security?)

Vacation brings back D’Angelo, given nothing to do yet again, and Chase, looking closer to Fat Brando than ever. The comic “highlight” of the cameo is Clark awkwardly trying to remove a guitar from a case. It’s a sad send-off for a character who is, in his own way, as iconic as Rocky Balboa.

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Related Materials: 2003’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure technically qualifies as a Vacation, since Randy Quaid’s character returns, along with his wife, played again by Miriam Flynn. However, change some names and drop an Eric Idle cameo (he’s presumably playing the same victimized character he did in European Vacation, who never met Eddie) and no one would pick up on the connection. This made-for-TV film is thunderously unfunny and inept, taking ages to get to its tepid Swiss Family Robinson premise and “Eddie gets redeemed” storyline. The only purpose it serves is as the answer to a trivia question: For reasons too complicated to get into, the story also involves Audrey Griswold, who is played by Dana Barron, making her the only actor to play a Griswold kid more than once.

Final Ranking:

1. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
2. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
3. National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)
4. Vegas Vacation (1997)
5. Vacation (2015)
6. Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure (2003)

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