It can be tempting to read too much into National Lampoon's Vacation, which at the end of the day is just a funny story about a hapless man driving his family cross country. At most, you could probably get director Harold Ramis to admit that he's tapping into the shared experience of everyone who's ever had a miserable road trip. The humor hinges on our ability to connect with the various disasters onscreen, along with the way they exacerbate existing tensions within a supposedly loving family. We've all been stuck in a car with those nearest and dearest to us and suddenly been struck with that clear realization -- diamond-like in its purity -- that we could strangle them all and bury them in the desert where no one will ever find them. Vacation revels in that feeling, in the absurdities of life that create it, and in the strange way they become more memorable and endearing than a simple "we all went to Disneyland and it was great."
But the humor in Vacation also taps into something beyond the trials and travails of a road trip gone wrong: something connected to cultural upheavals that we're still grappling with today. Its Doofus Maximus protagonist, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants an idealized family: the kind of Father Knows Best dream that never existed save in the minds of the overly nostalgic. He’s using the trip from Chicago to California to realize that dream… despite the fact that he’s neglected his family for years and that they hardly resembled the Norman Rockwell image to begin with.
Expectations meet reality and hilarity ensues, as Ramis’s shaggy dog of a plot takes the Griswolds through every conceivable roadside disaster. Besides basic pratfalls of the getting-lost-and-breaking-down-on-the-side-of-the-road variety, they have to deal with their white-trash cousins (Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn), transport their horrible aunt (legendary comedian Imogene Coca) to Phoenix, and somehow avoid collapsing into madness in the bargain. Every time, Clark tries to play the benevolent patriarch. Every time he fails spectacularly, with plenty of collateral damage for those around him. Watch him share a “first beer” with son Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) or try to lead a family sing-along, and you can smell the desperation behind his chipper grin.
That last bit is particularly important, because it further stresses the delusions that Clark rigidly adheres to. He can’t admit when things go wrong. He’s sunny and positive even in the face of unmitigated disaster. Clark represents the idealized fulcrum for Chase's onscreen persona: a friendly narcissist dedicated to creating perfection no matter how much it pains those around him. When that goal is threatened – when reality closes in – he just pushes back harder and harder. You can see where it’s going, and when it finally breaks (on a dark and stormy night no less) the willful insanity comes as no surprise. “It’s a quest! A quest for fun!” he grins at his horrified family. Ramis throttles back from the really dark stuff, but we can sense it lingering around the edges, threatening to pounce.
The perfect family mirage is compounded by an even murkier delusion: the sense of lost youth and a long-departed manliness that, like his perceived loving home, never existed in the first place. Whenever Christie Brinkley drives by and flashes her gams, Clark has to confront his own self-inflicted insecurities. And again, he dodges the reality until it all comes crashing down around his ears.
It’s all so funny in part because Ramis knows how to stage the gags, and because Chase is firing on all cylinders for one of the few times in his career. But mainly it's funny because we've been there, because we fear the things he fears, and while we may be smart enough not to chase those foolish dreams, some part of us wishes we had. Vacation seems remarkably gentle in this day and age, the occasional dead dog joke notwithstanding. But the basis of its comedy never changes, propelling it past its amorphous structure into a quiet form of greatness. Thirty years later, it still makes us laugh... and we still hurt just as badly in the process.