Vacation should exist; the shock is instead that it took four years from the release of European Vacation in 1985 for that second sequel to materialise. The years 1985-1988 were awfully busy ones for screenwriter John Hughes, it is true: during that span he rose from "screenwriter making his first foray into directing" to "beloved crowd-pleasing producer and one-man cottage industry", and while it is presumably the case that anybody could have written a third Vacation - as indeed, would eventually happen - it is to the credit of National Lampoon house producer Matty Simmons that he refrained. Or perhaps it is instead the case that Hughes himself pushed for the third movie, to be made under the aegis of his Hughes Entertainment, wanting a slice of that nice hot franchise action like just about any producer might.
Either way, the holiday season in 1989 saw the debut of Christmas Vacation, which is an awesome little case study in all sorts of ways: for the insight it gives us into Hughes's evolution from 1983 to 1989, for what it says about the nature of sequeldom over the course of a decade that perfected the art of self-copying. But before we get to that, some first principals: wherein I shall maintain that Christmas Vacation is not as good a film as Vacation, but that the gap between the quality of these two films is nothing compared to the huge gulf separating the both of them from European Vacation, which is really quite awful in all the ways that a forced sequel might ever manage to be, and the sign of a bunch of people who really just aren't feeling the movie they've been tasked with making. It says something - I have not quite figured out what - that European Vacation was directed by the agreeably talented Amy Heckerling, and sucked, while Christmas Vacation was directed by first-timer Jeremiah S. Chechik, whose later work includes the insipid remake of Diabolique and the gut-smashingly bad The Avengers, and is pretty darn good.
The film opens with a fairly charming animated credits sequence in which Santa Claus, delivering gifts to the home of Vacation's accident-prone Griswold family, undergoes a goodly number of slapstick mishaps that are somewhat reminiscent of a Robert Clampett Looney Tune only without the manic edge. From here, we join Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase, for the third time) and his clan - Ellen (Barbara D'Angelo, also for the third time), and the kids Audrey (Juliette Lewis!) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki) - on a quest to find the perfect Christmas tree out in the middle of God knows where in the Midwestern countryside. It is but the first of many ways in which Clark plans to make this the finest Christmas in the family's history, and given that this is a Vacation movie, they all go horribly wrong: his hugely ambitious scheme for covering the house in 25,000 lights runs afoul of the basic rules of residential circuitry, his folks (John Randolph and Diane Ladd) can't stop fighting with Ellen's (E.G. Marshall and Doris Roberts), redneck cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his brood show up in a ghastly RV, Clark gets locked in the attic, food is burned past recognition, et al ad infinitum.
Like the first movie, Christmas Vacation was ultimately based on a short story Hughes wrote for National Lampoon magazine, and it's telling: there's a feeling of personal connection to the material that is altogether absent in the shrill procession of comic mishaps of European Vacation. There's also a rosy sense of nostalgic Americana gone hideously wrong: for in this film as in the original, Clark's chief motivation is to create for his family an experience that can match the heightened memories he has of his own childhood - a theme Hughes also explored in his script for The Great Outdoors, and I find myself wondering if, as it seems, the topic of a scrapbook version of the '50s vs. the impossibility of such a lifestyle in the real world was of such importance to Hughes, why he never directed any version of that story himself (and, for that matter, perhaps that's why European Vacation fails: the good movies to either side of it are both so much about how America chooses to think of itself that a version of the story set in Europe simply has no direction to go).
If there is one real problem with Christmas Vacation, it's that the PG-13 rating keep it from the same dangerous edge that made Vacation so brilliant: and this is maybe because Christmas is, typically, such a warm and fuzzy topic that filmmakers can't bring themselves to make a Christmas movie that is genuinely family-unfriendly (Bad Santa was still a decade and a half in the future). Even if that's not true of directors generally, it was certainly true of John Hughes in 1989, who had been for some time steadily reducing the saltiness of his movies: as if, having thrown himself headlong into the world of genial family comedies starting in 1988, he'd committed himself to never again using the word "fuck" - though the F-bomb does make its allowed single appearance in Christmas Vacation, in the middle of Clark's standard "If you aren't all happy right now I will beat you all to death" rant, serving mostly to demonstrate how much better the equivalent monologue was in Vacation, when Chase got to tear into obscenities with the psychopathic enthusiasm of a true connoisseur of vulgarity. Though even thus deprived of a sharp nastiness, it's still a good moment in a film that offers Chase quite a few opportunities to go full-on crazy; and it's not like Hughes has gone completely soft. After all, this is a movie that famously electrocuted a cat into oblivion.
It's not just the lack of swearing that makes Christmas Vacation gentler than its predecessors: while Clark suffers his share of indignities, it's worth pointing out that he isn't the chief victim of his own fuck-ups. That honor goes to his neighbors (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who are made "safe" targets of comic mayhem by being represented as a pair of incredibly superficial and horrible, Christmas-indifferent yuppie assholes (for somebody so clearly intoxicated by the lushness of life on Chicago's North Shore - where Christmas Vacation nominally takes place - Hughes sure does love to vilify yuppies). Even if Chechik was a wildly impersonal, untrained filmmaker, it's probably just as well that Hughes did not direct it himself; the man who could brush out the cruelty of Vacation and turn it into the far sweeter Planes, Trains & Automobiles would probably have left Christmas Vacation unendurably sweet, instead of the fairly perfect blend that it is of cartoon violence and mayhem and the pleasant lightness of a Christmas movie. As it is, the film is just wicked enough in just enough moments (Chase's flawless handling of a scene where Clark collapses in a pile of double entendres before a busty saleswoman, the cat's death, the Pythonesque escalation of absurdities in the film's final act) that it fits right into the very necessary Christmas movie niche for families that don't want the cutesy bromides of a G-rated classic, but like the holiday too much to see it mocked. It is a deserved holiday classic, and a welcome blend of mean absurdity with Hughes's newfound love of family comedy that isn't as grand in concept or ambition as some of his comic peaks, but is the perfect version of what it sets out to be.