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Christmas Vacation (1989)

by Steve Habrat

If you are in the market for big laughs during the holidays, stop your search at National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the third and perhaps best entry in the Vacation series. Hugely slapstick and loaded with good intentions, Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is somewhat of a bumbling hero to the comedy realm. He wants nothing more than to spend quality time with his family and goes to great lengths to make sure their trips and holiday’s are something to talk about for years to come. Yet this should not be confused with intellectual depth, an attribute that is severely lacking in much of the National Lampoon cannon. But as a mindless distraction, Christmas Vacation will tickle your funny bone with its dry wit, raucous charisma, smart aleck one-liners, and none other than Griswold himself. I wish I could go on about how this film makes profound statements about the meaning of Christmas, but I can’t stretch it or sugar coat this film.

Clumsy oaf Clark Griswold (Played by Chase) wants none other than to provide his family with a good old-fashioned family Christmas. One with the perfect tree, warm company, gaudy outdoor decorations, and a big fat Christmas bonus so he can build a luxurious pool in his backyard for his children and extended family to enjoy. Along with his affectionate wife Ellen (Played by Beverly D’Angelo) and his disinterested offspring Audrey (Played by Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Played by Johnny Galecki), the Griswolds face entertaining their in-laws, snooty neighbors, wild animals laying waste to their home, and the unannounced visit from their southern fried cousin Eddie (Played by Randy Quaid), a beer swilling moron who makes Clark look like a rocket scientist.

A much more adult oriented holiday funny flick, Christmas Vacation is loaded with toilet humor, sexual innuendos, and a finale that includes kidnapping and a massive SWAT siege on the Griswold homestead. It main goal is just to make you belt out hearty laughs at the expense of Clark’s pain. They throw him into every situation imaginable, ranging from tumbling off ladders while covering every inch of his home in white Christmas lights, to him stepping on boards and whacking himself in the face. The impatient one-liners from his children are also winners; one includes a disastrous trip to the lingerie section of a department store. At odds with Clark is Cousin Eddie, who spouts off with even more stupidity than Clark, although Clark’s comedy centers more around him getting hurt or frustrated. Yet Christmas Vacation manages to be spot on about your in-laws and extended family shacking up with you for the holidays. Personalities conflict, arguments arise, tempers flare, and you have to put up with at least one family member you have no desire to see. In Christmas Vacation’s case, that is Cousin Eddie.

If dealing with nagging family members is the extent of this film’s depth, we can only further evaluate it on its performances, which are all quite fine and bursting with the right amount of silliness. The film relies on its how-much-worse-can-this-actually-get premise to the point where it literally ends in explosions and fireworks. Quaid’s Cousin Eddie steals the show with his asinine remarks and constantly hindering the fun that Clark and Ellen try so desperately to provide. It’s nice to see him on Clark’s turf this time around and not in his native hillbilly setting. D’Angelo’s Ellen really doesn’t undergo any drastic change to her character. She still sticks by her Clark even at his dumbest. William Hickey and Mae Questel show up as the elderly Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany. Lewis is cranky and shrill, constantly snapping and disinterested in the entire effort by Clark. Aunt Bethany is a senile old bat that delivers one hysterical quote after another. Just try not to burst into hysterics when she sees Clark’s outdoor lighting scheme for the first time. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest show up as Clark’s hip neighbors who scoff at his attempts for a family Christmas. They also deliver their fair share of memorable moments to keep Christmas Vacation afloat.

Credit should also be given to director Jeremiah S. Chechik who allows the film to coast along and expertly balances out the laughs. He makes a moment where Clark watches old films of Christmas and his childhood a tender moment. He allows the film to be warm and accommodating, making us almost feel like actual guests in the Griswold home. We see scenes of darkened rooms where the guests are sleeping. We laugh over Rusty and Audrey awkwardly sharing a bed and being furious over each other’s movements. We almost feel like we are staying over with all of these characters. The inviting nature of this film always made me a softie for it. I will say that the film seems to wait a little too long to reveal its big twist and the hurries the final events. You’ll forgive it though.

Christmas Vacation is the furthest thing from cinematic brilliance but it sure can get the inevitable moments we all face at this time of the year correct. The film opens with a snazzy cartoon number and a catchy little tune you will be humming along with. It’s also insanely quotable and will have you and your family spouting off lines to each other for days. Ranking as the most polished and probably the most consistent Vacation film, it easily has the most replay value. It is without question the most family friendly entry, just outdoing the sub par Vegas Vacation. It should also be noted that the film has aged miraculously, never truly reeking of the 80s. Hell it even makes a good holiday double feature with A Christmas Story. If you the adult finds this a tough glass of eggnog to drain, your kids will sure be howling with delight. If you can lower your pretensions long enough to appreciate an innocent laugh, you’ll enjoy dropping in on the Griswold’s old fashioned family Christmas for years to come. I just hope you make it out alive.

Grade: B+

Christmas Vacation is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)

by Steve Habrat

They may not be for everyone, but I have to say that I just love the weed-fueled duo that is Harold and Kumar. I have found their previous adventures to be uproariously funny, strangely heartwarming in their quest for those tiny steamed burgers from White Castle and their relentless quest to clear their names after being accused of being terrorists. Yet their adventures never seemed meaningless, always riffing on stereotypes of all races and confronting every taboo under the sun. Who can forget the preppy girls bathroom game “Battleshits” from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle? Or how about their trek through the ghetto, getting a flat tire, and then fleeing in terror from a group of African Americans who just aim to help in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay? For my money, I prefer the darker second installment to the first, but I still like them both. Now Harold and Kumar are taking on something much bigger than the munchies for greasy burgers and the FBI. They tackle 3D! Oh, and Christmas too. It turns out that their Christmas hijinks are not nearly as funny as you would expect. Sure, they lob every body fluid and giant clay penises out at the audience like it will be going out of style. Sure, it’s raunchier than the last two films combined. So where does A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas go wrong? Well, it just seems like it’s trying too hard to shock us without ever really accomplishing it. I’m sorry but Santa Claus receiving a shotgun blast to the head, tumbling out of the air and then snapping back to reality while exclaiming “WHAT THE FUCK?!” isn’t that funny. It’s also the furthest thing from sophisticated.

A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas has a straight forward set up. It’s been a few years since Harold and Kumar have spoken or seen each other. Harold (Played once again by John Cho) has a cushy office job, has married Maria, the Latino love of his life (Played by Paula Garcés), and lives in modest but upper scale home in a New York City suburb. Kumar (Played once again by Kal Penn) crashes in a dump of an apartment, surrounded in the haze of marijuana smoke. He has just recently broken up with his girlfriend Vanessa (Played by Danneel Ackles), a girl he still is head over heels for. Harold is hosting Maria’s parents for Christmas, a scruffy crew lead by the Christmas fanatic Mr. Perez (Played by the always welcome Danny Trejo). Mr. Perez brings with him a prized Christmas tree that he has been growing for years. After a mysterious package brings Harold and Kumar back together again, they accidentally burn down Mr. Perez’s prized tree, sending them on mad dash through New York City to find a new tree. Their journey leads them to a party thrown by a Russian gangsters virgin daughter, getting a baby stoned on weed, cocaine, and ecstasy, shooting Santa Clause with a shotgun, plotting to rob a church of their Christmas tree, drinking laced eggnog, eating at White Castle again, and crossing paths with the deranged party boy Neil Patrick Harris.

Truth be told, none of the situations that Harold and Kumar find themselves in are all that humorous in this installment. In jokes are made to the other installments and tweaks are made to the story to fit with present day issues. An Occupy Wall Street nod is thrown in, a gag that involves an egging, urinating on the windshield of a car, and human shit used as a projectile. Jabs are made about Asian’s taking pictures by Mr. Perez and so on and so forth. The problem is that the writing doesn’t hit you the way it has in the previous installments, coming across as weak and musty. Nodding to the previous two films is okay, but sometimes it feels like it is stretching it a bit. Worst yet, it’s predictable, a flaw that the first two films seemed to avoid with ease. Here, what is unpredictable lacks a satisfying pay off. This is especially true with the Russian gangster gag, a character that only exists to be an obstacle for the boys to overcome. He is never a genuine nuisance like Rob Corddry’s short fused FBI agent in Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

What also trips up this installment up is the lack of any satire. The previous installments hounded us with satire, bringing to light our hasty judgments of different races and economical standings of some individuals (Who can forget Freakshow?). It quietly slapped us on the wrists while luring out giant belly laughs in the process. It made us stand back and admit to ourselves that we are really shallow and closed off as human beings. Guantanamo Bay was much heavier with these ideas and it dared to get political, I will give it that, but this one lacks it all together. It opts for tributes to popular Christmas films and playing up the 3D add on. There are some nice touches with the rediscovery of friendship and sticking together, typical buddy movie messages that I could find in any given Happy Madison production. The film also tries to encapsulate the spirit of the season, going out of your way to bring happiness, joy, and love, especially to the nagging extended family.

The real treat in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is the fact that the entire cast returns to reprise their beloved roles. You can really tell that Cho and Penn enjoy playing the ethnic heroes. Hell, Penn left his White House job to once again play the gutteral Indian stoner. The film seems like the cast had a ball together and the addition of tattooed tough guy Danny Trejo was a pleasant touch. He does ramble off a few zingers throughout the 90-minute run time. Praise should also go to Neil Patrick Harris who narrowly saves the film from stinkville, once again embracing the inappropriate drug and alcohol junkie. The scene where he goes to Heaven is a jewel, especially his interaction with Jesus, who he calls “some hippie”.

I wish moments of A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas would have snowballed into something bigger and much more outrageous. It would have been appropriate for this movie with its winter setting. Instead it is comfortable with just grabbing a few chuckles and dashing off. It’s severely anticlimactic, lacking any big showdown or conflict, which was majorly disappointing. The filmmakers seemed to run out of situations that they could place our protagonists in. It doesn’t miss the opportunity in setting up another installment though and I’ll admit that it does have my interest. I’d gladly see another one of these films and I do hope they punch things up for another round. Wait a couple years and see what the social climate looks like. That seems to be the technique they are running with anyway. Sadly, the high has worn off of this franchise and this installment is crashing hard. Someone get the bong and let it toke up!

Grade: C+