Though not quite as giddily frivolous as Caddyshack, Harold Ramis’s National Lampoon’s Vacation is marked by its unevenness as much as its rampant humor. As family man Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) sets out on a bonding road trip out to California’s Walley World with his wife, Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), and two teenaged kids, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron), nearly every sequence elicits robust laughter, but the film seems to hang together carelessly, its few long-view comic elements feeling overtly calculated. The stop-off to visit Eddie (Randy Quaid), Clark’s cousin, and his family is an uproarious blend of sarcasm and Podunk stereotyping, both embraced and subverted. Clark’s not-so-suave reaction(s) to a mystery bombshell (Christie Brinkley) he incrementally bumps into, on the other hand, ultimately plays too blatantly toward the film’s tired thematic concerns.
Those ideas, mainly centered around the importance of the family unit, despite its imperfections, is the reliable product of John Hughes, who adapted the script from “Vacation ’58,” the hilarious short story the filmmaker wrote for National Lampoon magazine. In Hughes’s original fiction, the father figure appeared as a classically tight-lipped, gruff archetype, but Hughes smartly reconfigured the role of Clark to be a bit of a sentimental fool, a true believer in the power of family bonds and positive thinking. As played by Chase at the height of his comic abilities, Clark (and the film) is funniest when his image of the perfect family vacation (and his self-image as the perfect father and husband) is upended, from having his driving route mocked by his children to a botched attempt at teaching them about race relations and how the other side lives when he accidentally drives into a ghetto. The comedy is sharp, but the filmmaking is utterly haphazard.
Whereas its superior sequel, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, is anchored by a central location and popular traditions, Vacation’s sporadic locations and occurrences engender a scattershot narrative and, by extension, a slack attention to the supporting characters. As such, whenever the film attempts to convey anything genuine about family, it feels shallow and unearned, and thankfully, these instances are scant. The upside is that even seemingly small supporting characters—the Walley World guard played by John Candy, the dog-loving highway cop played by James Keach, and Eddie’s pot-growing, quasi-incestuous daughter, played by Jane Krakowski—have their moments of singular hilarity unburdened by the machinations of plot. And this isn’t to say that the central cast, which comes to include the great Imogene Coca as Clark’s delirious Aunt Edna, is anything but consistently funny.
As his comedic material has become far more spotty in recent years, Ramis has ironically grown much more focused and shrewd as a visual storyteller. Nothing in Analyze This or Analyze That is as riotous as a single line from Rodney Dangerfield or Bill Murray in Caddyshack, but the pair of films boast a more refined sense of pace and fluidity than Ramis’s classic debut. This noticeable maturation has lead to at least two modern, modest classics (Groundhog Day and The Ice Harvest), but for the most part, the trade-off has been for the worst. Vacation might feel structurally jerry-rigged, but a work of comic wiliness, despite its technical and narrative faults, is far preferable to a pristinely made mediocrity that calls for little more than a complacent grin.
This is the same transfer as the 2010 Blu-ray release, which bolsters the cynical viewpoint that this is merely a desperate cash-grab from Warner Home Video. That being said, this transfer is a major step forward from the DVD and, with the addition of a 2011 television documentary on the film, this is ultimately the best version of National Lampoon’s Vacation available. Colors are bold, from the dull green of the station wagon to the blazing red of Christie Brinkley’s Ferrari, but not to the point where the video feels overly processed or synthetic. Texture of clothing and setting details are nicely preserved: Check out the dingy interiors of Eddie and Catherine’s home. Black levels look great and there’s little evidence of digital touch-ups. The audio isn’t as strong, but that’s likely more due to the technical issues of the film than the transfer. Still, dialogue is consistently out front and clear, while Ralph Burns’s score and assorted pop songs (Lindsey Buckingham’s iconic "Holiday Road," the Ramones’s "Blitzkrieg Bop") fill out the back end nicely alongside audio effects. A rip for those who own the 2010 version, but a solid package for new fans.
The Inside Story feature-length documentary on the film, courtesy of A&E, is the only addition to the package from the 2010 Blu-ray release, and for die-hards it’ll likely prove invaluable. Featuring interviews from various cast and crew members, along with vintage behind-the-scenes footage, the doc details how the film was shot on an actual road trip with the crew in order to convey a more realistic sense of travel. The patchy audio commentary is best when Harold Ramis is discussing the origins of the project and production anecdotes, but the rest of the participants feel completely disengaged, with the mild exception of Anthony Michael Hall, given his nostalgic look back at the production. A theatrical trailer and a useless introduction by Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid, and Matty Simmons are also included.
Little more than a cash-in, this 30th-anniversary edition of Harold Ramis’s classic comedy is, with the exception of a feature-length making-of doc, identical to the previous Blu-ray edition of the film.