Christmas time is here, which means holiday movies are all the rage. But some of the best holiday movies aren’t uplifting tales of the triumph of the human spirit. Welcome to Dysfunctional Holiday Theater.

national-lampoons-christmas-vacation-11457After surviving a cross country trip to Wally World and a romp through Europe, the Griswold family stayed home for their third harrowing get-together, Christmas Vacation.

In my family, Christmas Vacation is considered the best made movie about Christmas because it doesn’t pull any punches. This isn’t a Hallmark movie about trivial conflicts that get resolved with the power of love and togetherness resulting in a perfectly planned denouement. No one gathers around to sing a classic Christmas song over a montage of happy faces opening presents. And we sure don’t have any rotund magical gentlemen who help move the plot along.

No Christmas Vacation is about shit hitting the fan and shit hitting the fan badly.

Clark Griswold, played for a third time by Chevy Chase, is trying to host the perfect family Christmas in every way: a stunning Christmas tree, great presents, a perfect dinner, a brilliantly decorated house and getting the in-laws together under one roof. As to be expected, this all fails in spectacular fashion. But he’s doing what most of us have a habit of doing during this crazy holiday season. We set our sights too high to show our loved ones how much we care with gifts and gestures but then feel like we’ve let them down when things don’t work out. It’s a grounded conflict that keeps us rooting for Clark even when he loses his cool because we can see ourselves in him.

Chase is joined once again by Vacation series alumna Beverly D’Angelo as Clark’s wife Ellen. Like all Vacation movies, the Griswold children Audrey and Rusty are played by different actors in each film, this time by Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki of Big Bang Theory fame. Brian Doyle-Murray (whose baby brother Bill starred in Scrooged) takes on the role of Clark’s fat cat boss Frank Shirley. Also of note in the cast is Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Margo Chester who plays the Griswold’s yuppie neighbor along with husband Todd Chester.

The movie gets a little slow until the arrival of Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie, who is described as having a “heart bigger than his brain.” Cousin Eddie bring with him his wife Catherine (Ellen’s cousin), two of his children Ruby Sue and Rocky and beloved dog Snot. Eddie is the foil to Clark’s straight man and some of the best lines in the film come from their interactions.

Christmas Eve is the setting for the climax and they pay off everything that’s been building up. This is easily the best part of the movie. Comedic meltdowns are followed by a wild animal attack, property damage, a well-intentioned kidnapping, a SWAT team descending upon suburbia and a sewage explosion.

The success of the film (and general dearth of new ideas in the 21st century) led to the made for TV sequel National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure but that’s a story for another time…