Last month, on the occasion of both Elf and Love Actually celebrating their 10th anniversaries, we set about the task of deciding which one was Christmas-ier. Now that we're well in the thick of Christmas season, we thought we'd tackle the same task for even more holiday classics. Today, it's the home-invasion slapstick Home Alone and a different kind of home-invasion slapstick, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
Christmas Vacation (1989) is the holiday-themed entry in the Chevy Chase-starring series about a family of long-suffering parents and shape-shifting children, forever trying in vain to find a decent way to spend time away from work/school. Clark Griswold's hopes for an old-fashioned family Christmas at home are dashed by, among other things: inconsiderate in-laws; quirky electrical hook-ups; rude yuppie neighbors; more inconsiderate in-laws; an excess of sap; even more inconsiderate in-laws; raw sewage; and the unreliability of that relic of corporate life: the Christmas bonus.
Home Alone was the biggest box-office success of 1992 and spawned a giant critical backlash that is probably ongoing, though at this point, the children who grew up with the movie are now opinion-makers in their own right, so the film's reputation is a good deal sturdier than it once was. Macaulay Culkin was rocketed to fame with this one, enjoying a good few years of cinematic success before Michael Jackson videos and The Good Son sent him spiraling downward.
The case for Christmas Vacation as the Christmas-ier movie will be argued by Esther, while Joe will stick up for Home Alone.
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Now, let me start by saying that neither Christmas Vacation nor Home Alone are among my favorite Christmas movies, but in a competition for sheer Christmas-y-ness, Christmas Vacation has to take the cake. Why? Because it simply can't exist without Christmas.
The story of a boy accidentally left home by his distracted parents could essentially take place any time of year, even though ornaments do provide good booby traps for little Kevin McAllister. However, the story of the Griswold clan's ill-fated holiday is intrinsically linked with the merry season. Really, there's not much in the way of plot in Christmas Vacation, it's just a series of Christmas-themed vignettes: Clark cuts down a ginormous tree; Clark does an insane number on the house lights; Clark accidentally kills a cat.
It's also worth pointing out that, despite the ending where everyone stands together and sings (... the National Anthem, but still), Christmas Vacation is still quite a bitter movie. Clark, lest you've forgotten, is an unrelenting asshole with a wandering eye, and Christmas brings out the worst in him. And yet! Doesn't that, on some level, make it more perfect for the holiday? Christmas is often a mix of good cheer and aggravation, the fun of the presents and traditions sometimes muted by the arrival of annoying relatives. Clark's over-exuberance, perhaps, is a metaphor for bombardment of Christmas on our senses this time of year. Christmas Vacation shows that Christmas can be agonizing, and what's more truthfully Christmas-y than that? —EZ
Now, Esther. I know you don't want to get into a war of metaphors here. Home Alone wins all your Christmas metaphors. The Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern) are the epitome of turning the Christmas season into a joyless pursuit of "stuff." They are the capitalist nightmare personified, burglarizing neighborhoods and inflicting their greed for stereos and jewelry and priceless heirlooms upon their hapless victims. They're even using the timing of Christmas lights against these people! Not to mention co-opting the false security of the police state, when Joe Pesci dresses up like a cop to perform reconnaissance. The Wet Bandits are Black Friday. They're door-buster sales. They are ruining everything.
Enter Kevin, who manages to foil the Wet Bandits through thoroughly unsophisticated means. A a couple of old paint cans here, some saran-wrap there, his brother's pet tarantula. His entire setup with the mannequins that fools the Bandits into thinking there's a rollicking party happening at his house is both thoroughly implausible and also remarkably clever. Kevin's a DIY hero (in an age when DIY practitioners are more concerned with fancy book deals than D-ing IY). He's the home-security equivalent of a popsicle-stick Christmas ornament. You know that kind you made in second grade, with the excess gobs of Elmer's glue and the press-on googly reindeer eyes? Kevin is the triumph of an anti-commercial Christmas. What does he ask that tic-tac-dispensing, half-assed Santa to bring him for Christmas? No toys, just his family. Without the prominent Christmas themes, Kevin's just a sadist with an unnatural talent for rigging blowtorches.
Also, and even more importantly, we can't forget about the other half of the movie. The half that has increasingly become my favorite part of the movie: Catherine O'Hara's desperate attempt to get home from Paris to see her son. She haggles with travelers and wheedles French-accented Hope Davis at the airline counter and eventually hitches a ride with the delightful (and, it should be noted, Santa-esque, at least in terms of temperament and body type) John Candy and his polka band. By traveling across an ocean and half the upper midwest in order to make it home in time for Christmas, she actually out-vacations Vacation.