Saturday, December 3, 2016
Christmas 2016: December 3
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Last December, I reviewed “A Christmas Story.” That’s the ultimate example of a Christmas movie that was trashed by critics in theaters but, through repetitive cable showings, has developed the reputation of a holiday classic. (Despite it, you know, not being very good.) The same pattern would transform “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” – initially dismissed as another lackluster entry in an underachieving franchise – into a seasonal favorite. Its TV screening are so popular, it would spawn a direct-to-NBC sequel. Once again, I’ve somehow missed seeing the film before now. I’ve never actually seen any of the “Vacation” movies.
As the Christmas season arrives, the Griswald family is gripped by stress. Their house is crowded with distant relatives, all of whom delight in making the family miserable. More family members stop by, each new one more unpleasant then the last. Clark, the patriarch, is worried that his Christmas bonus has yet to arrive. The lights won’t light. The Christmas dinner is overcooked. The tree is burned to the ground. Everything goes wrong. With the Griswald clan ever be able to find the true meaning of the season, in all this chaos? Take a guess.
A lot of people find “Christmas Vacation” hilarious. Personally, many of its gags strike me as grating. Some of the bits are utterly cartoonish. The tree exploding through the window, the opening car chase, Clark’s supersonic sled ride, the dehydrated turkey, the electrocuted cat, a rogue squirrel… It’s all so mean-spirited, so ugly. Many of the characters are similarly off-putting. Clark’s stepparents are hateful and spiteful. Uncle Eddie is a white trash grotesquery, who pumps shit into the sewer in one scene. (Credit were its due: Randy Quade’s performance is suitably unhinged.) A deeply senile grand-aunt has no idea where she is or what day it is, which seems more sad then funny. The film’s most mean-spirited gags are visited upon Clark’s neighbors. Though rich and slightly smug, they do nothing to deserve the constant punishment the script doles out to them.
I guess I just don’t get it, you guys. Maybe if I had watched it as a kid, allowing a cloud of nostalgia to float over the film, I would like it more. Or maybe “Christmas Vacation” is nowhere near as funny as people claim it is. I’m certainly not going to pick up any moose shaped glasses. (Which only appeared in one scene, by the way.) I probably won’t even check out the other “Vacation” movies, since this one did so little for me. I definitely won’t watch the Cousin Eddie starring sequel, which is disliked even by fans of this one. Others can celebrate the season however they please. My celebration won’t include dead cats and senile old ladies. [5/10]
The Night of the Meek
“The Twilight Zone” is probably not the first TV show you’d expect to have a Christmas episode. The series usually specialized in deeply ironic and usually cynical morality plays, with supernatural trappings. Yet it appears Rod Serling had a soft spot for December 25th. “The Night of the Meek” concerns Henry Corwin, a mall Santa Claus who loves to drink a little too much. He drowns his sorrows because he can’t stand how greedy the holiday makes people. After getting kicked out of his latest job, he comes upon a bag in the streets. Inside is the perfect gift for everyone. Corwin walks through the impoverished streets in his Santa suit, handing out presents to everyone he meets.
On paper, “The Night of the Meek” probably sounds awfully maudlin. The main character outright states the episode’s themes, of giving to those who need it the most. His enemies forgive him after receiving presents. After emptying his bag, Corwin realizes the best gift of all has been saved for him: The gift of giving. In one of Serling’s patented twist, the final minutes see the drunkard literary becoming Santa Claus. What elevates the material is a genuinely sincere streak. The darkness of the holiday is acknowledge, in Corwin’s drinking and the poor families living on the streets. Everyone receives what they most desire, regardless of how they treated the main character. The spirit of forgiveness and charity informs the entire episode. This is carried over to the conclusion, which stays carefully on the other side of being too mawkish.