The first in the hugely popular National Lampoon’s comedy film series, 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation is a delicious slice of ‘80s Americana a la American apple pie.
After nearly 35 years, this film still tastes as sweetly fun, hilarious, and irreverent. It’s a great pick for summer movie-watching. Or if you crave living vicariously through a family who’s on a dubious cross-country road trip to meet a talking moose named Marty.
Starring Chevy Chase as Clark W. Griswold (an idealistic head-in-the-clouds father in search of the best family vacation ever) and Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen (his down-to-earth, practical wife who would prefer to fly instead of drive), this movie is side-splittingly funny. And who can forget Russ and Audrey, the couple’s wonderfully eye-rolling teenage children? A summer vacation stuffed in the car with mom and dad? Gag me with a spoon, to use a total ‘80s expression.
National Lampoon’s Vacation starts in suburban Chicago. Dad Clark’s car is flattened in a botched trade-in deal, when he’s trying to buy a new sporty car for the big family vacay. Instead, an ugly green and tan station wagon (aka “the family truckster”) is foisted on him in the ultimate example of “slimy car salesman” tactics. Funny? Extremely funny. From the word “go,” this movie is giggle-worthy.
The Griswold family then embarks on their road trip from Illinois to California, and unintentionally serves up a dollop of cheeky scenes. There’s the wrong turn in St. Louis, and a dusty saloon pit-stop in Dodge City that might induce deafness. Lesson: Never tell an ornery bartender to “move his chicken wings!” There’s also a visit with cousins in rural Kansas, where the Griswolds reluctantly add curmudgeon Aunt Edna and her vicious dog Dinky to their caravan.
There’s also the terrible campground in Colorado, the loss of dog Dinky from the back bumper, and another wrong turn in the desert somewhere around Arizona. Aunt Edna then dies in her sleep, and the family leaves her wrapped body at the back door of her son’s vacant house during a rainstorm. Asked if she’s learned anything about death, teenage Audrey says, “Yeah, don’t die unless somebody’s home!” No one said life was a rose garden. Neither is a family vacation.
National Lampoon’s Vacation is decidedly “non” politically correct. It pokes fun at ‘80s America: its families, suburbs, cities, and farms. No one is immune from its good-natured barbs. It even pokes fun at the ‘80s American supermodel, with blonde-haired and blue-eyed model Christie Brinkley making her onscreen acting debut, and serving as dad Clark’s red Ferrari-driving love interest. She zooms in and out of the movie like a bright refreshing nod to a bright ‘80s American decade. For better or worse, she’s a symbol of ‘80s America, a decade focused on flash, money, and traditional beauty, driving alongside traditional families in reliable station wagons. The ‘80s were about family wealth, fun vacations, and apparently families who still drive, instead of fly. This film encapsulates that, all with the backdrop of beautiful American landscapes.
It’s no surprise then, that by the time the Griswolds arrive at Walley World amusement park in southern California (dubbed “America’s Favorite Family Fun Park”), they’re tired. They’ve been through road trip chaos. And the chaos continues. The park is temporarily closed. Upon hearing the devastating news from Marty Moose (the park’s rubbery mechanical mascot at the front gate), what does good old Clark do?
Naturally, he abducts the park’s security guard, and then forces him to power up all the rides. A bold move, it pays off. The Griswolds get to enjoy Walley World, even its mammoth white rollercoaster named Screemy Meemy. For 1983 audiences, it was the cherry topping on an already hilarious movie. For Hollywood filmmakers, it was confirmation of a hit movie, and a movie that would spawn four sequels in future years.
But not only is National Lampoon’s Vacation one of the all-time best summer flicks, it’s one of the best 80s flicks. It captures the ‘big’ decade in a big way. Who knew a typical family could have such a major vacation. Like the rich ‘80s, this movie is gold. In the case of the kooky Griswolds, this gold might actually just be coin-shaped chocolates wrapped in gold-colored foil. Whichever, it’s a rip-roaring adventure.
I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.