It might be difficult to believe nowadays but at one time, Chevy Chase was funny. Really funny. National Lampoon’s Vacation is probably the zenith of his hilarity, and represents his most perfect role – he manages to be deeply ironical and kind-hearted, keeping everything together while always being slightly deranged – his Clark Griswold is nuanced and flawed, human without being anywhere near real, and all the better for it.
The triumph of the film is in the writing, which proves that all a comedy needs is great performances and strong jokes – the story is almost an irrelevance, used here as a contrivance to put these characters into different situations. Nobody learns anything, and while everybody gets a happy ending, there’s absolutely no character development. At all. But it doesn’t matter, because the journey is such fun.
But you already know all this. It’s a classic. You don’t need somebody to tell you why this film is great, because its reputation precedes it. What you want to know is “Is it a good Blu-ray release?” The answer is yes. Yes it is. The film looks great, and could have been released yesterday in terms of image quality. The auspices of fashion being what they are, the Griswold’s appearance has become fashionable, seeming like a family of hipsters to modern eyes.
That said, some scenes are hideously dated. The attitude to women throughout the film jars with modern sensibilities, as they are either nags or lust objects. The story with the younger girl in the sports car doesn’t have a satisfying pay-off – sure, it represents Clark’s desire for the good times of old, but it doesn’t come to any conclusions. On that note, the scenes in downtown Chicago are an outright embarrassment – the Griswolds venture down the backstreets into a “bad part of town”, a handy signifier of this being “black people everywhere”. And of course, said black people all talk jive street slang and, yes, they are all criminals. It’s really appalling, and shows how in just thirty years social attitudes change so much.
These quibbles aside, the jokes haven’t aged a bit. The film is ruder than you might initially expect, and there’s a deadpan edge to the one-liners that feels ahead of its time – when Audrey feigns deafness at the picnic, Ellen’s immortal line “Oh great Clark, she’s deaf. Are you happy now?” never fails to amuse. The casual attitude towards death is also really funny, and played much more subtly than it needs to be. Like the film as a whole, in fact – not subtle exactly, but better than it should have been.
The documentary looking back at the making of the first film is also really good – it’s over an hour long and very in-depth. If you want to see how old everybody’s gotten, then watch it. Also, it’s funny.