The Griswold family are going on vacation, but first head of the clan Clark (Chevy Chase) has to get their new car, taking son Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) along with him. However, once they reach the car dealer's, while their old vehicle is taken away they find their new one is not what they asked for, not at all, if anything it's a monster of a station wagon instead of the sporty number they had ordered. The dealer (Eugene Levy) makes lame excuses, but the fact remains there's been a mistake - and another when their old car is crushed. Not a good omen for the holiday...
National Lampoon's Vacation was one of the most popular of the American humour magazine's big screen outings, but not everyone saw the joke, as at the time this was regarded as a divisive comedy, with many sitting through it straightfaced as others roared with laughter. This bad taste strain of jokes was not for everyone, but even then the critics saw it as the worst kind of middle-class, white, American comedy, which funnily enough was precisely the profitable seam of material the film's writer, John Hughes, would mine for the rest of his career, making him a legend for some, a smug purveyor of conservativism for others.
Hughes said he wrote his script for Vacation in four days, basing it on his short story published in the pages of the magazine, but there were rumours that both director Harold Ramis and star Chase had subjected it to extensive rewrites to ensure Clark was the centre of attention rather than the two teenage kids (Dana Barron was the other one, daughter Audrey, while Beverly D'Angelo was the longsuffering mother). Whatever the truth, following the loose formula set up by the greatest National Lampoon film, Animal House, they were wise to keep a classic Saturday Night Live member at the heart of the gags, mainly because this was Chase in his buttoned down but actually a little crazy mode that he did so well.
And he only gets more crazy the further the Griswolds' adventure goes on, as Clark decided he didn't want to fly to their destination of amusement park Walley World, and prefers to drive across the country from their home in Chicago to California. Really this was your basic comedy road movie, and as there was a variety of stops on the way the scene was set for as many ideas as the filmmakers could dream up, from the necessary visit to the relatives (led by Randy Quaid, who series fans would see again in this context) to the more obvious tourist humour, the fish out of water business that was the bread and butter of this type of flick.
Certainly there was a good cast here, and if the laughs weren't exactly consistent, they worked well together as an ensemble as the family seemingly met up with famous comic performers old and new: Imogene Coca played the irascible Aunt Edna, whose fate almost ends up as an urban myth, and Eddie Bracken was Mr Walley, while TV faces such as John Candy as a security guard and Henry Gibson uncredited as a hotel clerk also periodically appeared (even a young Jane Krakowski was there too). With a tone that was less reactionary and more dependent on humiliating the Clark character, Chase did well to hold this together as he accidentally kills the vicious pet dog or has a not-quite fling with Christie Brinkley during his ever-encroaching mid-life crisis, but after a while you pretty much had the measure of where this was going, so if an undemanding watch for seasoned comedy fans, there wasn't much else to it. Music by Ralph Burns, and just try and get Lindsay Buckingham's theme song out of your head.