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Christmas Vacation
First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema Screening room

It’s surprising that the bland third instalment in John Hughes’ series about the great American dysfunctional family has become a holiday classic run annually along with classics like It’s a Wonderful Life. Chevy Chase reprises his role as the hapless, over-reaching, suburban dad Clark W. Griswold, Jr. whose desire to make every occasion special ends up exasperating his family. The great Beverly D'Angelo also returns as Clark’s endlessly tolerant wife Ellen, though she’s more of a prop than an actual character in this picture. Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn as Ellen's poor country cousins also show up for this housebound holiday. Christmas Vacation, the last in this series to be penned and produced by Hughes and to bare the National Lampoon label in its title, is widely considered the best of the Vacation sequels because of its highly-relatable holiday theme, and because of Quaid and Flynn’s participation—their characters did not appear in the underrated Amy Heckerling helmed European Vacation (1985).

Like the original film, Christmas Vacation is based on a short story Hughes wrote for National Lampoon magazine, "Christmas ’59," which was published in 1980. Hughes was reluctant to write another of these movies, but since he already had a story that he liked on which to base it, he could crank out the script with even less effort than his usual near-automatic screenwriting process. The directing reins were first handed to Hughes future Home Alone collaborator, Chris Columbus, whose 1987 directorial debut Adventures in Babysitting feels much like a Hughes movie. But Columbus and Chase did not get along, and the young director, despite really needing the job, told Hughes and Lampoon producer Matty Simmons that he could not work with their famously cantankerous star. Hughes replaced Columbus with Canadian first timer Jeremiah Chechik right before principal photography commenced. 

It’s impossible to know if this picture would have been any better under Columbus's flat, pedestrian direction. Chechik followed this up with the charming Benny & Joon (1993) but the rest of his career has been littered with duds. Christmas Vacation would certainly have fared better under the direction of Hughes, Heckerling, or the original’s Harold Ramis. The physical comedy Chase is known for isn’t as hilarious this time around, and many set pieces are just stale rehashes of much better-executed sequences from the first movie. 

The cast is made up of a first-rate ensemble including John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Brian Doyle-Murray, Sam McMurray, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfusas, William Hickey, and Mae Questel (in her final performance). Unfortunately, these great actors don’t get to do much except stand around and watch Chase and Quaid. Clark and Ellen’s kids—different actors in each film—are played this time out by the very young duo of Juliette Lewis (who would go on to star in Cape Fear, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and Natural Born Killers) and Johnny Galecki (future TV star of Roseanne and The Big Bang Theory). They’re both fine but, like the older stars, they do little more than react to the excessive behaviour of the two main stars.

Twitter Capsule:
Disappointingly bland third instalment in the series of National Lampoon comedies feels like warmed up leftovers from the original movie but set at home during the holidays. An absolutely stellar cast is wasted.
Directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik
Produced by John Hughes and Tom Jacobson

Written by John Hughes

With: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Randy Quaid, William Hickey, Mae Questel, Sam McMurray, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nicolette Scorsese, and Brian Doyle-Murray

Cinematography: Thomas E. Ackerman
Editing: Gerald B. Greenberg and Michael A. Stevenson
Music: Angelo Badalamenti

Runtime: 97 min
Release Date: 01 December 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1