Every Thanksgiving weekend, after the leftovers have been ravaged and the football games ignored, I sit down to watch "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" to officially kick off the holiday season. As Christmas movies go, the story of Clark Griswold's old-fashioned fun family Christmas, adapted and updated by John Hughes from his short story "Christmas '59," is pretty thin on spiritual transformation. But like many dumb comedies from the '80s, it gets funnier with repeated viewings.
Even though I know all the punch lines by heart, as each year passes I process the comedy through a slightly different perspective. Once I became old enough to identify not with the bemused Griswold kids or eager perfectionist Clark, but with Todd and Margo Chester, the couple next door, the movie's humor took a decidedly dark turn for me. Clark might be a prisoner of his own high expectations for Christmas, but Todd and Margo are just two busy professionals trying to live their lives while a series of escalating disasters ruins their precious time off.
When the movie introduces Todd and Margo, we know we're supposed to hate them on sight. It's obviously the weekend, because the Griswolds (Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo) have spent the day in the country with their kids Russ (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis) picking out the perfect Christmas tree. But we can tell, when Todd (Nicholas Guest) and Margo (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) pull up in their Saab, trendy metal briefcases in hand, that they've likely been at the office instead. This detail immediately establishes them as unnatural childless yuppie scum.
"Looks like the toad overestimated the height of his living room ceiling," Margo smirks to Todd, who chuckles at the comically oversized tree their weird neighbor hauled home on top of his station wagon. "Hey, Griswold!" Todd taunts. "Where do you think you're going to put a tree that big?"
"Bend over and I'll show you," Griswold fires back, waving a chain saw. When Todd protests, Clark ups the ante with a jab at Margo: "I wasn't talking to you!"
Todd, with his head full of hair product more than a decade before the first airing of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"; Margo, rocking an expensive coat untouched by grubby kid hands, a shit-eating grin and sunglasses on a pitch-black suburban winter evening. They are the anti-Griswolds: stylish, ambitious, accomplished and more interested in relaxing at home together with a glass of wine after a long day than tangling with a truckload of Christmas lights.
Of all my Christmas-movie heroes — Roger Murtaugh, the Ghost of Christmas Present in "Scrooged," Linus Van Pelt — Todd and Margo are the most real to me. I love Clark Griswold and all of his optimism, his profanity, his wild, strangling embrace of the holiday spirit. But I feel for Todd and Margo, who are terrorized by a maniac and appear to have little recourse for the financial and emotional drain caused by his short temper and poor decision-making skills.
When Margo sees Clark putting up an obnoxious amount of Christmas lights and muses, "I hope he falls and breaks his neck," and Todd replies, "I'm sure he'll fall. But I don't think we're lucky enough for him to break his neck," their gallows humor feels bleak and resigned. They see Clark for who he is — a self-centered control freak who has wrapped up his holiday celebrations in a toxic masculinity neurosis. Living next door to him must be hell. It is Todd and Margo whose Christmas spirit is tested throughout the movie, and "Christmas Vacation" never acknowledges their struggle.
* * *
The plot of "Christmas Vacation" is paper-thin but satisfying. Clark wants to throw "an old-fashioned fun family Christmas" and invites his parents and in-laws to visit. Ellen's cheerfully stupid cousin, Eddie, crashes the party along with his family. They give Clark someone to feel superior to as he struggles in his quest for holiday perfection under his in-laws' withering judgment. At the center of his plans is the big reveal of the swimming pool he has secretly ordered, but the delay of his annual Christmas bonus check, which he needs to cover the pool deposit, is making him sweat.
On Christmas Day, one thing after another goes horribly wrong: A dinner is ruined, the cat turns up dead and Clark's perfect Christmas tree goes up in flames. When the bonus arrives, it's actually a membership in the Jelly of the Month Club, which sends Clark over the edge.
Cousin Eddie kidnaps Clark's boss and brings him to the Griswold home, which prompts a SWAT team invasion. The boss sees the error of his ways and the bonus, plus some, is reinstated. Clark learns that there's no such thing as a perfect Christmas, but being able to buy his family an in-ground swimming pool is close enough. In the end, they all sing Christmas carols, even the cops.
Now imagine how this story unfolds if you live next door. Your neighbor has found multiple reasons in one week to run a chain saw after dark. You're repeatedly blinded by his obnoxious decorative light display, which shines directly into your bedroom at night. There's a lot of yelling and swearing in the front yard at all hours. For the last several days, his houseguest's rotting RV has been parked in front of your house, and yesterday you saw a man in a very short robe and little else emptying his portable toilet into the storm sewer.
Yet somehow you have found the patience to not call the cops. This neighbor broke your bedroom window and your very expensive stereo. You know he did, and not once has he apologized, let alone offered to replace them.
"Aren't you just the teeniest bit sorry we didn't get a Christmas tree?" you ask your husband over Christmas margaritas, which is a genius idea. "I mean, even though they're dirty and messy and corny and clichéd."
"Well, where are we going to find a tree at this hour on Christmas Eve?" he replies, quite sensibly.
And then the neighbor chain saws down a tree that bashes in yet another of your windows, ruining Margarita Night. What the hell?
When you finally go over to tell him off, you're attacked by wild animals. You and your husband get in a fight as a result. The icing on the cake? A SWAT team breaks down your door to stage a hostage rescue because of course the neighbor has kidnapped someone.
Haven't you been saying for years you think there might be something wrong with the guy? For an encore, he blows up the storm sewer, which the city will not fix — and you know he won't take care of it, will he? Good thing you've been billing for all those extra hours! Why did you move to the suburbs again? Is the resale value of this neighborhood really worth it? Who would buy your house once they get a load of this guy? Merry fucking Christmas!
Now, rewind to the scene where Todd and Margo find a second-floor window shattered, the stereo destroyed and a mysterious puddle on the floor.
"And WHY is the carpet wet, TODD?!"
"I don't KNOW, Margo!"
Their anger and frustration, so often read as snotty and hypercritical, feels well-earned to me.
* * *
Clark is the quintessential family man, obsessed with creating a magical holiday for his family as an exercise in asserting his manhood. He wants to be recognized as the big-shot king of Christmas. Seen through that lens, Todd, with no children to wow with holiday light displays and a partner who appears to be his equal professionally and personally, is an emasculated joke, a wimp who won't risk getting his hands dirty by confronting his volatile neighbor.
But Margo is even more despised by the film — she's not selfless or warm or feminine enough to be the equal of Ellen "Oh, Sparky!" Griswold, long-suffering MILF extraordinaire — and so she ends up more often as the butt of humiliating gags.
"You just march right over there and slug that creep in the face!" Margo demands of Todd.
"I can't just attack someone," he protests.
"All right, if you're not man enough to put an end to this shit, then I am!"
For standing up for herself and her husband, for being "man enough," Margo gets mauled by a Rottweiler named Snots.
The real villain of this story is Mr. Shirley (Brian Doyle Murray), a cold-fish CEO whose spiritual journey to fullheartedness happens in the final moments of the film. But because the Big Bad works mostly in absentia, Clark needs secondary antagonists. Enter Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) fouling up his idyllic suburban tableau from one side, while Todd and Margo look down their noses from the other.
Hughes often examines class dynamics in his work, and "Christmas Vacation" is no exception. Unlike the class tension between Clark and Mr. Shirley — the sympathetic worker bee laboring under the thumb of the callous 1 percenter — the contrast between Eddie and Clark is designed to make Griswold look good.
Eddie is unemployed and, as it turns out, he and his wife and kids are now homeless. The punch lines about his older children — one is in rehab for alcoholism, another is working his way up in the carnival — reek of condescension. Which is not to say there isn't wry humor to be mined from the tension between the suburban security of the Griswold home and Eddie and Katherine's sudden arrival. Beverly D'Angelo's brilliant pause before assuring her cousin and his wife "We have plenty of room!" is one of the film's most under-appreciated moments.
But when Clark offers to buy Christmas presents for Eddie's kids, and Eddie offers a prewritten list of all the things the entire family would like, in alphabetical order, it's clear that the film is painting Eddie as a stupid but cunning corner cutter whose loyalty and amusement value are outweighed by the economic and social burden he creates. He's not portrayed as a family man who tried his best to ensure his kids could have a nice Christmas for once, too, but a there-but-for-the-grace-of-Griswold-go-I shadow father. Clark isn't just Eddie's social and economic superior; because of his status as a breadwinning homeowner whose kids speak standard English, he's also supposed to be Eddie's moral superior, too.
That's where Todd and Margo come in. With every raised eyebrow at Clark's commitment to tacky holiday flash, Todd and Margo cut Clark's aesthetic and values down to size. Compared with Eddie, sure, Clark is the very model of aspirational middle-class stability.
But to his neighbors, with his plastic decorations in shambles and his temper unraveling on the front yard, Clark might as well be the subdivision's resident redneck. Their snootiness is an equalizing reminder that all of us, no matter how respectable in appearance, are someone else's Cousin Eddie. The presence of Todd and Margo allows the movie to neutralize Clark's judgment of Eddie, transforming the humor into harmless culture clash and holiday family chaos instead of something meaner.
For their part, Todd and Margo are also supposed to be objects of pity, with their empty lives filled with nothing but jogging, alone time, supposedly fulfilling work and cocktails. . . . Hold on, in what universe are margaritas at Christmas a bad thing?
Being childless yuppie scum at the holidays is actually pretty sweet, no matter what John Hughes would have you believe. (There is no childless yuppie couple in "Christmas '59," of course, but there is a precursor to his "Sixteen Candles" caricature Long Duk Dong, which shows how weirdly committed Hughes could be to bad ideas.) We love our nieces and nephews, but the pressure to make Christmas or Thanksgiving or Halloween or freaking St. Patrick's Day magical is one that my husband and I will likely never need to accept.
If there's a Christmas lesson to be learned from Clark Griswold's misadventures, it's that kids aren't really impressed by the pageantry anyway, at least not until they're old and have their own kids and want to recapture an idea of the holiday that maybe was never quite real to begin with. Clark allows an oppressive nostalgic ideal that only he values to drive him mad, and he nearly destroys several lives — Eddie's, Todd's and Margo's, his own — in pursuit of it.
This year, pledge not to be a Clark Griswold about the holidays; nobody will survive you. Be a Margo instead — be assertive and clever, treat your home as a sanctuary and insist that your partner shower between exercise and sex. Get that tree at the last minute, even if you think it's dirty and messy and corny and clichéd. Skip the big family holiday gathering this year and run off to Paris or a warm island or just hole up inside your house with your stereo and block out the light show next door.
Screw the turkey. Eat a cheese plate instead. This is the unintended lesson "Christmas Vacation" reteaches me every year: Whether you're childless yuppie scum or the last of the family men, the most satisfying thing to do on a holiday is whatever you damn well want.