16 September 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: VACATION (1983)

Of the three films John Hughes wrote in 1983, Mr. Mom proved that he could write a big, Zeitgeisty hit, but his next effort (which premiered a whole week later in July of that year) was almost certainly the more impressive achievement. For one thing, it was almost as successful as Mr. Mom - $61 million vs. $64 million at the US box office - and it did that with the handicap of an R rating. For another, where Mr. Mom is regarded with a kind of glazed acceptance, Vacation is still held up as a comedy masterpiece in some circles, for the unanswerable reason that, whereas Mr. Mom is sweet and aimless and bland, Vacation is a deconstruction of the insulated self-assurance of the white suburbanite that verges on outright anarchism in spots. And for a third thing, Vacation was the fourth film released under the National Lampoon banner, and the first one since Animal House to do well enough for itself to secure the future of the brand name when it was right on the cusp of folding. Which means that if it weren't for John Hughes, we would not have the glory that is Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj.

The film is based on a comic story, "Vacation '58", which Hughes wrote for National Lampoon magazine during his time as a staffer there; it was inspired in a loose way on a horrible childhood trip to Disneyland. And this, I think, points to one of the main reasons that Vacation is a brilliant comedy where Mr. Mom is just competent: it is the first Hughes screenplay that is, apparently, based in material that personally animates him. It is true of most writers, of course, that they do their best work when developing stories that personally interest them, but in the case of Hughes his best scripts all have an autobiographical tang to them, based in subtle but meaningful ways on the northern Chicago suburbs where he spent his adolescence and most of his adulthood. I suspect it is also not a coincidence that Vacation opens in Chicago and the surrounding environs.

Another good reason for the film's quality is that it was directed by Animal House co-writer Harold Ramis, who had at that point just one prior film under his belt: but that film was Caddyshack, which I've always found to be a touch overrated; but it is undoubtedly in the top tier of '80s sex comedies. It is true that Ramis's output as a director includes a lot of likable junk and some awful shit, but it also includes Groundhog Day, the best romantic comedy of the 1990s. The man's comedy bona fides are in place, even if his great films are rare and he hasn't made anything good since the beginning of the century.

Vacation is a comic travelogue following the Griswold family - Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and their kids Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron) - from Chicago to Los Angeles and the world-famous Walley World amusement park; and a better survey of virtually every sort of comedy that you can put into a movie is hard to think of. There is broad slapstick in the form of the hideous land-yacht station wagon that the family is stuck with thanks to a noxious car deal (Eugene Levy, looking insanely young); there is crude "laugh at stupid people" comedy in the form of Ellen's cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his troglodytic redneck tribe; there is some blistering dark comedy in the amount of death and violence that accrue over the course of the trip; the cascade of ridiculous problems that afflicts the family at every step of the way is straight-up farce; there is of course vintage 1983 sex humor, much of it based around the pretty blonde Clark keeps seeing in a convertible, played by Christie Brinkley under an "and introducing" credit; and there is an escalating sense of pure cartoon anarchy through the whole of the feature's ruthlessly tight 99 minutes.

It's this last part that mostly endears the movie to me: the endless Cousin Eddie material is just annoying and gross (though it features Jane Krakowski at the dumbfounding age of 15), and there are only so many times you can watch Chevy Chase crash the same car before it gets a bit repetitive. But the delightfully slow boil that transforms Clark Griswold from a fatuously cheerful All-American Dad of the most reflexively autocratic stripe into a warped madman is pure genius (it helps that Chase, never an actor that gets my heart racing, is perfect for the role and navigates the character's various moods with bold authority: surely, this must be the best performance of his career). His increasingly desperate attempts to act like everything is okay, because he and his family are on a great old-fashioned road trip are funny enough; the moments when the act drops completely and turns into a raving maniac - one of the film's best-known moments is a brilliant rant where he starts stating invective against his family (and it's all the more terrifying and hilarious because it is stated and not screamed) anchored by the exquisite line "We're all gonna have so much fucking fun we'll need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles" - are as good as any film comedy of the 1980s. Though the film's primary reference point is clearly Mickey Mouse and the Disney empire, both parodied with biting affection, the cartoon character that it actually calls to mind, for me at least, is the unnervingly anarchic Screwy Squirrel. In the film's best handful of moments the comedy is unhinged to the point of actually feeling dangerous, a rarity in cinema anyway and certainly not typical of the lowbrow, naughty R-rated comedies of the period from whose ranks Vacation ultimately emerged.

This being a John Hughes retrospective, the temptation is to credit the writer with all of this, but really Vacation is a perfect marriage of collaborators on both sides of the camera, none of whom reached this specific kind of comedy elsewhere: points of Groundhog Day come close. It is, probably, the case that the sweetness and love of kitschy Americana that underpin the whole movie comes partially or mostly from Hughes, though: even at its most merciless, the film never loses sight of the gee-whiz fun of being on a road trip, even when and especially when things fall apart. I will vouch, anyway, for the precision of its depiction of the drive from the Midwest to the Pacific coast, one of the most prototypically American vacations that there is, and one presented by the film with loving attention for all the ephemera to be seen along the way, even as the loopy farce keeps things from ever getting saccharine. It's a nifty trick if you can pull it off.

No comments: