The Big Picture
- National Lampoon’s Vacation perfectly captures the horrors of a family driving vacation, from the boredom to the mishaps and unmet expectations.
- The film exaggerates the highs and lows of vacationing with family, which is something many people can relate to.
- For Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold, reaching Walley World becomes an obsession that lasts the entire movie.
From the minute Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) drives home in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, National Lampoon’s Vacation nails the horror that is the family road trip vacation. For some, the family vacation is a level of Hell that Dante would have trouble defining in words. It typically involves driving cross-country for hours on end, with an unceasing chorus of “Are we there yet?” being cried out from the back seats and a patchy 8-track of John Denver‘s album of greatest hits playing on a continuous loop. Vacation is more than just a comedy. It is instantly relatable to anyone who ever sat in a station wagon for a long-haul marathon: the boredom, the tourist traps, the mishaps, and, in the end, the destination not meeting up to its lofty expectations.
The family vacation is different in today’s world. The entire trip can be planned to the most minute detail from the privacy of one’s own home. Flights can be taken almost anywhere, from almost anywhere. Accommodations can be booked based on what the view looks like from the hotel room. Rental vehicles sit waiting for your arrival. Tickets for whatever events or attractions are part of your itinerary can be sent to your phone, the same phone from which you can play games and watch movies to pass the time. Most importantly, you can tell if the event or attraction you plan on going to is open or not. Yet National Lampoon’s Vacation still resonates, despite just how far vacation planning has come in the time since the Griswold’s disastrous on-screen adventure. And the reason is simpler than you think.
‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ Exaggerates the Highs and the Lows
National Lampoon’s Vacation wildly exaggerates the vacation experience with comic perfection. No matter how well-prepared the family may be, invariably the vacation starts off with some omen of what is to come. In the Griswold’s case, there were two. First, Clark goes to a car lot to buy a brand-spankin’ new sports wagon, the utmost in comfort for the long drive ahead. What he ends up with is the polar opposite, a beast of a gas-guzzling vehicle of questionable origin: the Wagon Queen Family Truckster. The second omen has the family’s luggage, carefully strapped atop the car, being knocked off before they even leave the driveway.
But once they hit the road, all is well, as most trips typically start out. The family is off to Walley World…how awesome is life right now? They’re singing songs, including the Walley World National Anthem, they’re smiling, they are… bored. They get lost in St. Louis, ending up in a seedy neighborhood where the car is plastered with graffiti, and then they fall asleep on their way to a motel. Including Clark, behind the wheel. From there, the film hits the highlights of any family vacation, where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. They hit the tourist traps, including a very brief look at the Grand Canyon (very brief). The car gets damaged after being driven off the road, with the costs to repair it somehow exponentially higher than they would be at home. More luggage gets lost, including one piece that has much-needed credit cards inside. It’s the equivalent of leaving your iPhone on the top of the car at the gas station, only to see it in your rearview mirror fly off and shatter on the highway (and if you think repair costs are high, wait until you have to replace a phone without the benefit of a phone plan). And with every debacle, there’s a driving vacation survivor nodding their head, remembering vividly the exact same experiences (although the experience of seeing Christie Brinkley is one not shared by many).
‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ Includes Annoying Family Members
If there is one experience from the film that is shared by all generations, it is this: the family drop-in. No matter your destination, there is always a cousin, or aunt and uncle, or grandparent along the route that you are stopping in to see, because God knows that if that relation knows you drove by and didn’t stop in, there’s that indescribable Dante’s level of Hell to pay. In the case of the Griswolds, they stop to visit Ellen’s (Beverly D’Angelo) cousin Catherine (Miriam Flynn) and her — quirky? — husband, Eddie (Randy Quaid) at their farm. The family is one chainsaw short of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to say the least. Eddie hits Clark up for a loan, and somehow Catherine and Eddie pass off old, crotchety Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) and her nasty dog Dinky on the Griswolds, asking them to drop Edna and Dinky off in Phoenix.
Which brings us to the next stage of the family road trip: the end. There comes a point where the destination is all that matters, and nothing will deter the leader of the trip (in this case, Clarl), from finishing what’s been started. This is evidenced in the film by two very, very darkly humorous moments: the deaths of Dinky and Edna. When a motorcycle cop pulls Clark over, he’s told that he forgot to untie Dinky from the rear bumper at their last stop, and let’s just say Dinky didn’t keep up. Then Aunt Edna passes away during the trip. Normally, the death of a loved one (or in this case, Edna), would give one reason to postpone the trip. Nope. Clark covers her with black garbage bags, straps her body to the roof, and leaves Edna on a lawn chair in her son’s backyard. It’s extreme, yes, but goes to show how the endgame becomes an obsession.
‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ Is a Relatable Comedy Classic
Finally, at long last, all the ups and downs of the trip are forgotten when the destination comes into view. Now it should be mentioned that in most cases, the destination can’t meet the expectation. Every Godforsaken mile, every dreadful moment, builds up the destination as a holy ground that makes it all worthwhile. So when Clark and the family reach Walley World in National Lampoon’s Vacation, there’s a moment of pure elation before they reach the gates, only to discover Walley World is closed. That’s not even meeting the expectation of entering the park, let alone experiencing it (at least legally). But in the end, somehow that long trek home doesn’t seem so bad. The evils of the trip there have been vanquished, and the goal has been met. Those catastrophes slowly, over time, become anecdotes about the best vacation ever. And therein lies the true evil of the family driving vacation. The agonies of the trip are replaced with a rose-colored view of the experience as a whole, leading the family to do it all over again the following summer.
The film is a comedy classic and easily one of Chevy Chase’s best efforts, but with so many elements that belong to another time, why is it still so popular? There are those instances that have parallels, like the aforementioned iPhone scenario, so it isn’t like the catastrophes that befall the Griswolds are completely unimaginable today. In spite of it all, the Griswolds are together, a cohesive family unit that soldiers on. And in a world where two people in the same room can still feel alone, completely ignoring one another while on their phones, where the most innocent of statements opens one up to online vitriol, where scheduling mismatches result in less time together, knowing that family stands with you still means something. Time together as a family still means something. Even if that time together pushes one to the brink of insanity, National Lampoon’s Vacation is proof-positive that the need for a family and all that comes with it is something that will never pass away. Unlike Dinky.