Vegas Vacation (1997)

Directed by Stephen Kessler

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What did you expect?

Vegas Vacation is fine, and that’s about it.  It’s a later installment in the Griswold story, yet another vacation in which we revisit Clark, Ellen, Cousin Eddie and, this time, the Griswold kids who were much older than last we saw them (8 years prior) and played by new actors.

This is just like a greatest hits album, or maybe a cover band of a band I haven’t listened to in years.  It’s the fourth installment in the “Vacation” series, and I have to assume many of the gags made reference to incidents I don’t remember.  The only movie of this series I have any strong recollection of is 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

What I do know is that Chevy Chase gets a chance to be silly, he alienates his family in an attempt to maintain control of something increasingly chaotic, and in general a lot goes wrong until it’s made right in the end.

There aren’t real stakes to this movie, but there don’t need to be.  I found enough of it funny, and though what I’ve heard of Chase as a person isn’t the most romantic, he does have a certain charm as a comedian.  As the movie goes on, though, some of the other characters do get their time in the spotlight.  This is an ensemble cast, probably more than it used to be now that the kids are old enough to be played by adult performers.  Rusty (Ethan Embry), in particular, gets a lot to do as a teenager who can’t believe his luck when everything begins going his way.

Vegas Vacation feels like it was written by someone who has never been to Las Vegas before, and that’s coming from someone (me) who has never been to Vegas before, outside of a three hour layover at the airport.

The Las Vegas of this movie has everything you expect from afar, the casinos, the resorts, the bougie lounge singer, etc.  We even get acquainted with Vegas deserts, meaning there’s a certain duality to this film like in Martin Scorsese’s Casino.  Other than that, of course, the movies have nothing in common.

What’s frustrating about such a harmless movie is the way it seems to glorify Clark’s actions, namely his gambling addiction.  His screw ups are played for laughs, but Clark is a legitimate addict whose actions clean out the family bank account.  His continuous foibles counteract his initial hubris, and they work to make more amusing Rusty’s own success on the casino floor.

Again, this is a harmless story, but Clark is just so unlikeable in contrast to the others.  He’s someone you kind of want to see fail, and when he alienates his wife (Beverley D’Angelo), you want her to just cut and run.  Movies like these (and many, many sitcoms) glorify the husband’s mistakes and make sure the wife is always there in the end to welcome him back when he decides enough is enough.

Ellen’s storyline, in fact, concerns the possibility she might be taken with Wayne Newton, a Vegas mainstay.  Playing himself, Newton is meant to be Clark’s seductive nemesis, and this dynamic makes Ellen a pawn in someone else’s story.  She is only there to be taken away and won back again.  It’s a reductive storyline for a character with far too much of her own good sense, but it’s par for the course in a movie like this.

Audrey (Marisol Nichols) is the other child, and her arc involves becoming a late night pole dancer after being corrupted by her cousin, Vicki (Shae D’lyn).  Again, when you take a step back, this is equally as frustrating as Ellen’s storyline.  The men in this story, Clark and Rusty (and maybe Cousin Eddie too), have something to do, things to win or lose and egos to stroke and bruise.  The women (Ellen, Audrey and Vicki) are the objects of others’ desire and at the mercy of another’s whims.

Ellen is there to be won or lost, both by Clark and Wayne Newton while Audrey is only there to be corrupted before Clark saves her in the end and returns the family to normalcy.  Vicki does have her own agency, which is great, but her life decisions are presented as incredibly flawed.  She is the only woman in the story to have made her own choices, and we’re meant to laugh and cringe at what she’s chosen.

Alright, deep breath.  These are all things to grapple with but maybe not the time to do it.  I don’t mean to indict Vegas Vacation and even if I was, who am I to do it?  I just have internet access and a functional grasp of the English language.

Still, I think Vegas Vacation is fascinating as something placed in a time capsule, a representation of where mainstream studio comedies were at this time.  It’s not that we’ve made so much progress since then, but I expect and hope that modern day studio comedies (of which there aren’t even that many) offer more nuance to their side characters, regardless of gender and to their female characters, regardless of rank on the call sheet.

Vegas Vacation just treats this as a Chevy Chase vehicle.  He’s the actor around which this all orbits, and he gets the most to do.

The underlining comedy has to do with Clark’s fear (and maybe every man of a similar age) about what Las Vegas will do to your family.  He nearly loses all of his money, his wife nearly falls for a young act, his son becomes a giddy high roller (is that a bad thing?), and his daughter takes the first steps towards becoming a stripper.  He wraps this all up remarkably quickly just by deciding to turn things around.  Once you make the decision to do the ‘right’ thing, the unseen forces of the world will ensure you get to where you need to go.

So Las Vegas is a place of temptation, and it nearly destroys them all until they shake their heads and wake up from their daze.  In the end they are saved by a sort of lottery ticket lost by a dead man.  It’s a stroke of luck that is meant to balance out all of their (or at least Clark’s) bad luck.

The movie works like a long episode of tv, with each character having their own adventure until they meet in the end.  You can picture this as an episode of The Simpsons, and each of the four family member’s stories go in line with what could happen to Homer, Marge, Lisa and Bart.

Up Next: The Motel (2005), Unsane (2018), Filmworker (2018)

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