National Lampoon's Vacation

On the surface National Lampoon's Vacation is a very inconsistent film. It has to be, because it is a road movie about a family named the Griswolds who are trying to get from their home in Illinois to the WallyWorld theme park in California, and road movies are by their very nature episodic and uneven.

Specifically, it is inconsistent because it is a broad comedy whose various vignettes veer wildly between being funny and painfully unfunny. For example, I particularly enjoyed the dark irony of film's climax  [...spoiler alert for a thirty year old movie...] where the beleaguered family finally gets to the park only to discover that it is closed. But the scene where the Griswolds get lost in Saint Louis and have all their hubcaps stolen by black people is a lot more racist than it is funny, by which I mean that it is incredibly offensive and utterly joke-free.

Below the surface, however, Vacation is very consistent. Each scene has a similar tone - they all share a suburban paranoia vibe. No matter where the Griswolds go someone is trying to encroach upon their middle class happiness. The film opens with a car salesman swindling them into buying a car they don't want; it continues with the aforementioned scene where a bunch of shifty Missourians steal them blind; when they stop by their rural cousin's farmhouse where they are immediately extorted for money; their grandmother demands a free ride to California and then gives them non-stop shit the whole way there. Apparently, the Griswold's home is a safe haven, but everywhere else is overrun with thieves, liars and beggars in need of a hand out.

I have a very ambivalent relationship to this sort of comedy. On the surface level all of those scenarios are absurd, and I can appreciate the humor in their exaggerations. However, you don't have to dig very deeply beneath the surface to hit a mother lode of aggressive entitlement, and I have a harder time seeing the humor in such deeply id-based emotions.

I can illustrate both sides of that coin using two of Vacation's running concerns. The Griswolds spend the whole movie trying to get to Wallyworld, and as I said before I can appreciate the idea of them arriving at the theme park only to discover that it is closed - but a part of the humor lies in the unlikeliness of that scenario. Sure, major theme parks need to be repaired from time to time, but they would never shut down entirely for two full weeks in the middle of the summer - that's bad capitalism. That outcome, then, works as an effective screenwriting fiction, an irony that caps off the progress of the movie.

However, another running gag is a lot uglier. At one point in the long drive down the highway the Griswold's station wagon is passed by an attractive woman in a sports car. Clark, the pater familias, is immediately enraptured with the woman - and also totally embarrassed that he's stuck behind the wheel of such a bland dad-mobile. He keeps running into the woman on the road and he keeps flirting with her from a distance even though his wife is always nearby. The two finally meet face to face at an anonymous hotel and they agree to go for a midnight swim together... nude. But this being a comedy Clark completely blows it; when he jumps in he discovers that the water is freezing and he howls out in surprise, waking up the entire building (including his wife).

Now, like the park's closing, the whole scenario is purely absurd - there's just no reason why those two people would keep running into each other given how much distance they cover and their differing travel speeds. And there's also no reason for her to want to talk to Clark; she's a super model and he's a dumb suburban schlub. However movies like this are built to convince stifled people that the grapes really are sour - they want to indulge in enough wish fulfillment to seem exotic and entertaining, but then they have to remind you that at the end of the day there is no place like home. Thus the mysterious stranger has to be attracted to Clark, and instantly open to having sex with him, but then his awkward tryst attempt has to fail badly enough that he ends up accepting that he is better off with his dumpy old wife (who is actually incredibly attractive because this is a movie.)

Unfortunately, this scenario completely misrepresents which grapes are rotten and which are not. The problem is not that Clark cannot sleep with every attractive woman he sees - it is that he expects every woman to be attracted to him, despite the fact that he is an boring man who is not even remotely interested in interacting with them in any non-sexual capacities. This is Clark's movie, and it treats the mysterious stranger as a personality-less cipher - but she isn't a cipher. She's a human being, and reducing her to a sex toy for Clark's amusement is blatantly sexist.

All too often broad comedies like this have very limited worldviews: they often treat their secondary characters as one dimensional fragments that are meant to augment the main character's existence. And I don't mind that when it's done with some heart, but Vacation doesn't have enough compassion to pull that off. Almost everyone the Griswolds meet are utter weirdos, or greedy con-men, or unrepentant assholes. I understand the humor value of stocking a movie like this with caricatures - but it also troubles me, because, as Roger Ebert was fond of pointing out, movies are meant to be empathy machines. They are supposed to encourage you to see strangers as being similar, not foreign. Unfortunately, films like this reaffirm the basic idea that the world is overflowing with evil people who are only interested in taking advantage of good-hearted people from flyover country, which is a paranoid delusion that all too many Americans already accept as true. 

Of course, your mileage may vary. It's possible to see this movie as benign; on the surface, it's a bunch of gags and silliness. But when you pull back and see this movie in context, it becomes more problematic. Yes, people get robbed all the time, but the idea that every black person wants to rob you blind is a demented fantasy. Sure, lazy people exist, but there is no point in becoming so fixated on their existence that you begin to see the world as an ongoing war between workers and takers. And there's something gross and weird in imagining that every hot woman in the world secretly wants to bone every chubby dad they see. And as long as those attitudes are leaking out into the world and poisoning our culture, I'm going to have a hard time laughing at trifles like this, even if they do end with a funny scene set on a rollercoaster.

Winner: Draw

National Lampoon's Vacation on IMDB