National Lampoon's Vacation (DVD)
On the commentary track for the souped-up 20th-anniversary DVD of 1983's Vacation, producer Matty Simmons boasts about the countless people who have told him that the Griswolds, an all-American suburban clan led to ruin by super-dad Chevy Chase, are just like their families. Through the feeble original and three sequels that range in quality from poor (Christmas Vacation) to unspeakable (European Vacation, Vegas Vacation), the idea of the Griswolds has far outpaced the films themselves, because every middle-class family has horror stories about cross-country misadventures. Worn down by dated gags and hourly showings on basic cable, the Vacation movies no longer function well as comedy, but they have found fertile ground in the popular imagination, mingling happily with memories of lumbering station wagons, frazzled nerves, and the snowball effects of Murphy's Law. A great comedy might have exploited these common catastrophes, but Vacation blows them up beyond recognition, starting with Chase, who plays the chipper, eternally optimistic father with brio that tips into psychosis. There's hardly a shot in the film where Chase doesn't try to swallow the camera with one broad expression or another, and Vacation follows in turn, laboring too hard to drive every punchline home. (Chase offers nothing but the highest self-praise when defending his work on the commentary track.) Only the first performance in a gallery of grotesqueries, from backward hillbillies to vile inner-city blacks, Chase's over-the-top acting sets the tone for the film's episodic tour through the obvious and puerile territory that came to tarnish the National Lampoon label. The simple, promising premise sends Chase, his sensible wife (Beverly D'Angelo), and their bickering children (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron) from Chicago to an L.A. theme park in a gigantic pea-green "Family Truckster" with a hiccupping engine and miles of wood paneling. Screenwriter John Hughes, who later recycled the same formula for Planes, Trains & Automobiles and The Great Outdoors, whisks them off on a series of hit-or-miss sketches that are geographically connected, but could otherwise be cut without anyone really noticing. Some of the more famously tasteless character bits involve black-sheep relative Randy Quaid's hick family–Quaid's daughter on French kissing: "Daddy says I'm the best at it"–and feisty old aunt Imogene Coca, who meets a grim fate, along with her mangy dog, en route to Phoenix. Unfunny as their scenes are, at least they have some sort of comedic purpose: If there's a joke somewhere in Christie Brinkley's role as a fantasy supermodel, it may have driven off in her red Ferrari. Along with the "Griswold Family Commentary," which connects separate recordings of director Harold Ramis and a host of others (Chase, Simmons, et al) with a lot of dead air, the DVD comes with a notably ripe basket of Easter eggs called the "Family Truckster Featurette." Instead of cutting together the usual puff-piece documentary, the disc forces viewers to click on different parts of the Griswold station wagon to get puny nuggets of information surrounded with clip montages. If the movie itself isn't enough to inspire Griswoldian madness, that feature should do the trick.