Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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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.

“Christmas Vacation” has another thing in common with “A Christmas Story,” which I think has contributed to its cable classic status. Both films have highly episodic plots, making them ideal for distracted holiday viewings. You can leap in at any time and find something entertaining, assuming you like the film. Truthfully, “Christmas Vacation” is little more then a series of gags loosely strung together. The premise, of a tension-filled family gathering, allows for many colorful characters and the wild antics they get into. The motivating plot incident, Clark’s concern for his Christmas bonus, only occupies a few scenes. The film even seems to acknowledge this structure, as many sequences are proceeded by shots of a advent calendar being opened. It’s a pretty lazy script construction.

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.

If there’s anything I liked about “Christmas Vacation,” it’s Chevy Chase. Which is surprising, since Chase’s performances are usually lazy and self-satisfied. His slapstick antics, such as a tumble through a crowded attic, are uninspired. However, Chase’s way with dialogue counts for something. A Freudian slip filled conversation with a shapely shop clerk is mildly amusing, even if it escalates in unlikely ways. His increasingly profane rants are far more amusing. He tells his co-workers to kiss his ass in creative ways. As the vacation gets worst, his behavior becomes more unbalanced, eventually leading to a hilarious F-bomb drop. After discovering that no Christmas bonus is forthcoming, he unfurls a profane rant. That’s pretty funny, moments of natural emotion in an otherwise deeply artificial film.

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 Twilight Zone: 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.

A big factor in “The Night of the Meek’s” success is Art Carney’s performance as Corwin. Carney seems genuinely intoxicated in many of the scenes, properly playing a totally soused drunk. His speech given to his employer, about the true reason for the season, is harsh but touching. Carney can also convey the character’s love of giving. His utter joy at discovering the magical bag, to passing out presents, is infectious. I also noticed John Fiedler as Mr. Dundee, the store owner. Fiedler is best known as the voice of Piglet but I also recognize him as Gordy the Ghoul from “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” After the overly crass “Christmas Vacation,” the totally sincere “Night of the Meek” is exactly what I needed. [8/10]

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