Vacation was the first zeitgeist-defining hit for a young John Hughes, writer for National Lampoon and eventual savior of its brand name, albeit only temporarily. Hughes, who would go on to direct his fair share of generally more teen-focused films that tend to fall into the quintessential and unmatched “basically solid and fine but primarily unexceptional and more notable for not being the schlock coming out on either side of them” basket from the mid-to-late 1980s. Hughes wasn’t the funniest writer, or the most precise, but he had an unbridled warmth and generosity about him that melded with his legitimately caustic ear for everyday human experiences, a bond that ultimately allowed him to create his fair share of sentimental, humanistic films that sometimes veered into sickly sweet, but generally stayed on the right side of the line.
Thankfully, Vacation sees Hughes playing a little more to the adult audience, and in doing so, it gives him a free reign to don his acerbic glasses for a while. Now, Vacation is not a meaningfully transgressive motion picture, but it tries to subvert suburban masculinity and geniality with more than a modicum of success, even if the very “early ’80s and we’re just sort of chilling and oh there happens to be a comedy movie going on here” attitude of everyone involved, the very attitude that ensures the film is a generally pleasurable experience, also erects a roof over the film it cannot meaningfully clear. Nor does it attempt to. It is impossible to imagine Vacation existing without the glut of similar R-rated comedies released in the early ’80s, primarily The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack, also directed by Harold Ramis. And like those films, Vacation is by and large a low-flying creature. But the garrulously trivial and episodic nature of the material is a pleasure – it keeps the film from ever trying too hard.
The film follows Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) and his Chicago-dwelling suburbanite family (wife Ellen, played by Beverley D’Angelo, son Rusty, played by Anthony Michael Hall, and daughter Audrey, played by Dana Barron) on a cross-country family vacation to California to visit a theme park known as Walley World. And as with all episodic films, the film is violently hit-and-miss. A sequence where the Griswolds are forced to dine with relatives in Kansas – impoverished cartoon characters if there were any – is cringe-inducing. And a sequence where the Griswolds lose their way in impoverished (there’s that word again) St. Louis is dangerously unsure of whether it wishes to mock the Griswolds, and in particular Clark, for his Midwestern masculinity and gee-shucks boisterousness and sheer drive to hide the fact that he has no idea what he is doing (a line about him pointing out the importance of his children knowing that poverty exists, only to reveal the facades of his comment immediately afterward, is bracing). Or, it might just want to mock poor African-Americans for being poor. The answer is likely both, which befits Vacation’s spitfire comedy style where anything goes, and which ultimately makes the movie a great deal less caustic and challenging than it ought to be.
Throughout, almost all of the film’s successes are derived from Chevy Chase, an acerbic, brutish, difficult male actor if ever there was one and entirely perfect for undercutting Clark’s thin veneer of niceness to locate the character’s dark, dogmatic, even dictatorial commitment to maintaining family joy and order. He is committed to his idea of fatherhood if it kills him, and his commitment to his family’s joy slowly reveals itself to be his inability to actually acknowledge or accept any definition of joy different from his own. He does not actually care about his family so much as he cares about his personal lie of being his family’s provider, and the center of his family’s joy. He is a quintessential masculine male pretending his polo shirt guarantees him ownership over his family.
There is a moment, specifically, in a fake recreation of an Old Western town, where he allows his suburban facade to slip, his inner male id let loose, and he is rewarded with a shock. It is the moment where the film most forthrightly connects its “Midwestern family goes out West” shenanigans with the myriads of American settlers who did the same in the 1800s. Here, the film implicitly explores how the American vacation and its idea of “escape” is but an extension of the American ego and its desire to play out fantasies of rugged lawlessness and escape from domesticity so that the ego can open up explicitly about its rampant masculinity. Vacation is, at its best, an expression of how that masculinity is often damaged, and more frequently deranged.
It is also a quintessential John Hughes film, specifically in its everyday study of human experience, but more particularly in its knowingly disjunctive, cheery fixation on Americana and the goofy, sloppy, vigorously sincere public kitsch that Americans have used to occupy the great wide public space of the American West. Hughes acknowledges the generally loopy fact that, after all that commitment to moving out West, we’ve seen to fill that West with such loving, arbitrary placeholders as a giant ball of yarn. It is, primarily, a comedy about what little Americans have done with the West and how much of a mockery we have made of that space (it isn’t that radical though; it doesn’t really have anything to do with legitimately criticizing America for stealing that land in the first place). Plus, Hughes also honors the dogged American commitment to its own lunacy, giving the film a teetering edge to gallantly drive over in its final moments, when the family does eventually arrive at Walley World and things ascend to screwball levels of mania.
The film’s secret success is that, while the episodes may seem distractions, they are part of the piece’s at-times scabrous critique of the American identity and how the sheer amount of open space in the nation has become a sort of White Whale for men to play an Ahab too, a journey without a destination where the very point is the ruthless commitment and not the thing being committed to. It doesn’t really matter if the family gets to Walley World. All Clark cares about is being proven right, and by testing himself in the chaos of the American West just to see if he can maintain order and control any longer. Vacation is Hughes testing that order just a bit too much for Clark, and exposing how tentative his belief that he can tame any wild space with masculine control of America really is. It is, essentially, a study in the idea of mid-century Americana (the ’80s, remember, was a decade positively infested with ’50s nostalgia, Hughes’ time of youth) and a study in how silly and willfully ignorant that rose-colored view really is.
Of course, it is still a populist comedy, so the thing never comes right out and explores the limits of these tantalizing principles, which is why, in the end, Vacation isn’t really a wholly good film so much as it is a film that frequently remembers that a good film is lurking within it (there is certainly a much more effective, nastier ending lurking within). But it has its moments, and that is much more than we can say of most film comedy, as shameful as that might be.