Made during a fertile period for its star, director Harold Ramis, and writer John Hughes, Vacation is one of the best comedies imaginable. A strong argument can be made, however, that it is also the greatest film ever made about America. This great and misunderstood nation’s guarded attitude about its past resulted in a careful cultivation of the great myths that make up American history. In the salad days of the Reagan Years, when Americans took pride in being American, invulnerability was our motto, and one of many unearned medals sported on our breast. Our every need utterly satisfied, the ultimate pasttime of the middle class became the pursuit of time wasted. The landscape was littered with dusty tourist traps that attempted to evoke the frontier west, albeit with glitter globes and souvenir ashtrays, ample parking hither and dither. Rural areas had only begun to be drained of the farmers who voted for the conservative revolution, leaving little along the decayed spine of Route 66 apart from empty motels and The Biggest Ball of Twine for the next hundred miles or so.
For the offspring of The Greatest Generation, there was no spoiling conflict, and we began feeling our oats once The Gipper took the White House and challenged the Soviet Union for the soul of the world. High times indeed, at least for weapons manufacturers and large corporations entrenching themselves globally in a period of extraordinary opportunity and optimism. For the middle class, apparent wealth was on the increase. There was no driving force of hunger or fear; the Iron Curtain was as far away as the nearest quasar as far as the nuclear family was concerned, and nukes were a threat, but an impossible one for an America insulated from the dangers faced by the rest of the world. While Afghanistan and Latin America served as pawns between the Cold War antagonists, the rest of America set its sights upon the horizon. And what would occupy our imagination as the single greatest object to attain? Disneyworld. A population devoid of imagination could imagine no more exotic and exciting location in a world where no other country existed. Who needs the White Cliffs of Dover or the wildebeest herds of the Serengeti when one could shake the hand of Goofy? Disneyworld is the penultimate accomplishment of the truly astounding ability of America to create and promote its own myths as the defining icons of the human species. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford took an eviscerating look at this myth, while Vacation considers the great American goal of self-distraction while lost amidst these myths.
Clark Griswold is a successful researcher of food additives – a fitting enough metaphor for superficiality that becomes a motif, since such chemicals add nothing of nutritional value. His wife and two kids are the very picture of domestic adequacy. Chevy Chase delivers a towering performance that is not only hilarious, but is pitch perfect in analyzing The Dad. Obsessed with distraction and living in fear of irrelevance, The Dad is distant enough to be regarded as an amusing acquaintance, but involved enough to be source of humiliation for any offspring within earshot. You know The Dad; t-shirt announcing that a bald spot is in fact a solar panel for a sex machine, blasting the latest rock from Buddy Holly, and oblivious to the concept of generational differences. We have all experienced this, at least before those of us who have spawned actually became The Dad in our own right. Well-intentioned, flawed, but involved. He was more embarrassing the more involved he was in his attempts to expose us to culture of a sort. In hindsight, these experiences were of greater value than I realized; around the time I learned just how limited my understanding of this world was, and the relative pointlessness of my life, I found my father to have grown wiser by several orders of magnitude. Anyway – he is the one to lead us into our first temptations and bring us closer to a larger and more colorful world. The vacation functions as a way to distill the Consumer Quest into a few expensive and strange days where we eat in bad restaurants, find the touristy places eager to separate lost people in loud shorts from hard-earned cash, and buy pointless trash that is almost admirably pure in serving no practical function.
From the opening bell, it is apparent that Vacation is onto something. Prior to initiating this epic journey, Clark buys a car specially designed for the purpose. He intends to get a sporty car for the family (whatever that means) but ends up stuck with a far greater chariot – the Family Truckster. Astonishingly ugly, this car sustains a tremendous amount of damage as it bears our white middle class family across the wasteland of America. On the way they visit an ersatz Old West town where the sheriff wears Nikes and the bartender shoots customers with blanks. They bounce from one cheap motel to the next, singing tunelessly in the car. They visit their lower class embarrassment of a family who survives on welfare, night jobs for the wife, and disability checks. With nothing to do except read porn and drink heavily, Eddie and his constantly expanding brood represent the object of hatred for taxpayers everywhere. Surviving almost entirely by the dole, they actively breed just to soak up more of the working man’s paycheck. The whole section is hilarious, like when Eddie offers Clark a ‘cool one’, hands him the open beer he was drinking and cracks open his own; or asks for a little extra cash, like $52,000. Cartoonish, yes, but like every other segment, this was in here for a reason. The segment makes light of poverty, but this is not about analyzing reality, but in how the middle classes see the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The lower classes are depicted as bleeding the country dry with no hope of ever attaining independence. They remain essential, however, as the great motivator of the middle class, to work oneself to death, with the only reward being employment up to the point of demise. The fear is potent and rules our waking hours – not fear of hunger, mind you, but of failure, and of forever being mired in circumstances that cannot be repaired. Even if Eddie went to school or learned a trade, there is no way he could support the fifteen or so children scurrying about their rural hovel.
Fear becomes a theme of sorts, as their next stop is lovely St. Louis. Or rather, the accidental exit to East St. Louis that every white man carefully avoids. The saxophone starts up, day turns instantly to night, and the streets are full of black guys. To the last man they are shiftless, idle, and move only for cash or hubcaps.
Clark: “Excuse me, sir? Could you tell me how to get to the expressway?”
Pimp: “Fuck yo momma!”
They stop to get directions (all the way down about a half a block to ask some guy sitting in a Torino with no wheels), which is long enough to be left with bald rims. Racist cheap shot or gritty documentary? You decide! These would be the only stereotypes in Vacation if the white characters were not all carefully crafted honkys. Oh, and the used car salesman is a Jew.
They travel on, a sojourn that resembles Aguirre’s doomed foray to El Dorado the further they go. Lost in the desert, wrecking the car on a massive jump off a ramp, no cash or credit cards, and (shudder) stuck with driving Aunt Edna to Phoenix, this nightmare is funny only on the strength of fantastic writing and a relentlessly upbeat performance by Chase. The greatest scene involves animal cruelty, as Aunt Edna’s hated dog is dragged to its death, and Clark is pulled over by a dog-loving policeman. As he struggles to feign regret and sadness while biting the inside of his face to keep that lethal grin at bay, he – and we – are pissing ourselves. It just goes on and on, taking full advantage of that great laugh we all seem to get at the worst time. Like at a funeral or job interview when that errant thought creeps in to start the giggle loop moving. Clark then robs a hotel and sprints past the Grand Canyon (ironically, the only national treasure on display here), as Disneyland is just several hours away. Even the corpse of Edna fails to slow down this whitebread train, left to molder on some cousin’s porch. Well, fuck that guy for leaving on vacation, right?
Finally, they arrive at Disneyland (well, Walleyworld anyway) to find it is closed for two weeks. The only solution is a terrorist takeover in order to hit the coasters, naturally. This is in keeping with the theme of American exceptionalism – impulsive, poorly planned vacation and all – they want it, and they shall have it all immediately. That is whole point of a vacation, to have what you want, when you want it, and pay as little as possible so you can bitch about poor service, dirty silverware, and hotel rooms with DNA still on the sheets. America is the biggest, but also the cheapest, filled coast to coast with Chinese-made shit that will last maybe a month before falling to pieces. Furniture of particle board, houses of thin wood and drywall, roads designed to last a couple of years, cars with engines prorated for 50,000 miles, and the haute cuisine of fast food that packs them in with full restaurants and backed up drive-throughs. And speaking of our fuel of choice, if it doesn’t come from a powder-filled bag in a box to microwave and scrape off a pan, it just isn’t American. We have some of the world’s greatest talent, best research, and latest technology, but we fail to appreciate that greatness. The anti-intellectual movement that began in earnest with Lee Atwater has matured into a genuine national identity, to the point where even intellectual politicians try to appeal to the representatives of mouthbreathers that hate them. In the end, the only sane thing Clark aspires to is cheating on his wife with 80s-era Christie Brinkley.
Is this a long trip from National Lampoon’s Vacation? Not really. The Griswolds are not vile people – Clark is a researcher with a food company, so he is no dummy. But he and his family don’t exactly shoot for the high brow entertainment. They are cheap, boorish, dull, and value nothing. This works as comedy, but I like to think of Vacation as part fever-dream in Clark Griswold’s head. Successfully evading a cop after killing a dog? Being able to get away with running game on a hot chick who is following you across the country while your wife is watching? And not ending up in jail after taking control of a shitty theme park at gunpoint? It is all a dream – a waking dream of variable lucidity for America’s middle class white man. And it is inexorably depressing while being one of the best comedies ever made. To think – the best time we can have exploring our country is to share the road, the hotels, and the utterly crappy chain restaurants with a throng of increasingly obese livestock with a disconcertingly high tattoo-tooth ratio. This is why I stick to museums when I travel domestically. Sure, a lot of them look the same, but at least one can hide from the proles. Welcome to the country of my birth.