The newest sort-of-sequel, sort-of-reboot of the Vacation series is making critics groan this week. Holidays were not always thus for the Griswold family! True, Vegas Vacation’s full-on PG brainlessness makes you want to forget it ever happened, but Christmas Vacation is a good enough annual tradition to turn on for yuletide cheer if only to hear Chevy Chase’s epic Bing Crosby-infused family meltdown. The 1983 original, National Lampoon’s Vacation, is an outright classic; one that launched Chase’s however brief post-SNL hot streak, solidified Harold Ramis as a comedy god, and put John Hughes on his path to dominating ‘80s comedy. But it’s the often overlooked Europe-set sequel that is the true gem of the series.
National Lampoon’s European Vacation came out just two years after the original. The film set the Griswolds off on an adventure in a series of quasi-vignettes to conquer England, France, Germany, and Italy after they won a cheesy American game show called “Pig in a Poke” by dumb mistake. Directed this time by Fast Times at Ridgemont High-helmer Amy Heckerling, European Vacation distills the essence of the series’ fish-out-of-water theme that grounded the first movie.
The original burrows into its premise and is an iconic comedy landmark for a reason. It manages to organically fit in every possible problem a family might have on a real open-West road trip and spin it to absurd lengths. The Griswolds lose their credit cards. They take a wrong turn and get lost in a bad part of a city. They get screwed by mechanics after the Family Truckster breaks down. They have to deal with nauseating family members and even a death before finding out their cross-country odyssey to Walley World was for naught.
Chase, as Clark Griswold, drives the movie with his over-the-top commitment to the family and to the destination, as epitomized in rant form: “We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles! You’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of your assholes! I must be crazy! I’m on a pilgrimage to see a moose. Praise Marty Moose! Holy Shit!” But European Vacation allows those moments to stand alone in order to expand its own tale of overseas holiday madness.
Apart from the fact that we actually see them on vacation, this time the family is totally out of sorts. Everywhere they turn, whether they’re trying to talk to a heavily-accented British man or order lunch near the Eiffel Tower in messy French to a waiter who is outright insulting them in his native tongue (“Go fuck yourself”), the consecutive scenes of their American ineptitude, as they travel through each country, represents a larger point.
Their European vacation seems to be saying that no one in the Old World — and maybe even no one on Earth — is free from these kinds of inter-cultural foibles. We’re joined together through our idiocy, with Chase’s endearing performance as Clark leading the way to collective, but appreciative, global stupidity. If there’s a high concept in this panoply of sight gags, bared boobs, cultural stereotypes, and shameless puns, this might be it.
European Vacation also features a near-perfect comedic performance from Chase, with the operative word being “performance.” Chase is a comedian whose less than stellar reputation since, well, forever has sullied his funny-but-cool-guy persona. Plus, if Bill Murray hates you, then you know something’s wrong.
But watch European Vacation and try to deny that this is a comedian at the top of his game. He isn’t simply playing himself (q.v. Fletch or, to a lesser extent, the first Vacation). He’s actually acting here, continuing a lineage of lovable cinematic idiots that stretches back to silent stars like Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin.
Chase was always falling over for yuks on SNL, but his turn as Clark in this sequel upgrades that rendering to slapstick gold. Scenes like Clark’s German beer garden fight that leads to the entire town chasing after the family or small moments like when he stumbles around a souvenir shop near the Seine are adept examples of physical, but also visual comedy that only the best can pull off for a genuine laugh.
The pinnacle of this is the film’s climax, which sees Clark speeding after Ellen, who has been kidnapped in a red VW convertible by Italian thieves. It’s a shamelessly madcap sequence that keeps escalating in absurdity. Clark jumps behind the wheel of a car, then steals a bike, and finally ends up in the car with the thief and Ellen in a huge palazzo fountain as he saves the day and gets the girl, who happens to be his wife. It unabashedly embraces its comedic influences but does so in its own way, and ends, American-style, with a sappy, happy ending.
This is why National Lampoon had such a great run. It’s patently mindless but still resonates in an intellectual sense, and when it comes to the series as a whole — things have never been this smart while being so dumb as they are in European Vacation.