The Griswolds are back in National Lampoon's European Vacation, but they forgot to pack the comedy. (And, weirdly, the letter "o," making this the only film in the franchise to mispell "Griswold" as "Griswald.") Anthony Michael Hall opted to make Weird Science instead, prompting producers to leave Dana Barron out in the cold in favor of recasting both kids—and thereby establishing a tradition for the sequels. Director Harold Ramis also took a pass, but Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo returned as parents Clark and Ellen...Griswald.
The film opens with a bright idea: what if Clark, Ellen and their teenage children Audrey (Dana Hill) and Rusty (Jason Lively) won a European vacation on a Family Feud-style game show (called "Pig in a Poke")? Director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless) and screenwriters John Hughes (National Lampoon's Vacation) and Robert Klane don't make much of the sequence, which clownishly puts the family in pig costumes (to chants of "Be a pig! Be a pig!"), but it does contain one of the film's precious few funny gags: in an edgy parody of Richard Dawson's signature kiss, John Astin's Kent Winkdale takes liberties with teen contestant Audrey. The pig motif is the first salvo of many that target the Griswalds as boorish and destructive "ugly Americans." The first film was content with gentle mockery of American suburbanites—and, by extension, the audience—topped with a single surgical strike ("What an asshole"), but in addition to lazily reprising that gag, the sequel piles on scene after scene of Griswald idiocy and ignorance. In the first film, they were more often hapless victims; in the second, they're more often victimizers.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea, other than fixing what wasn't broken. But the satire doesn't land: for one thing, by indulging boring stereotypes, the screenwriters become worse than the Griswalds, who at least have the defense of ignorance, whereas Hughes and Klane should know better. The family has never been more dysfunctional: Rusty gets caught drunk with a hooker, and Audrey is the butt of a running gag about her eating disorder—not exactly hi-lar-i-ous material, at least not without a more convincing unity of satirical action. The waste of the film's roster of "guest stars" offers a quick survey of European Vacation's entirely scattershot and seldom amusing methodology: Hecklerling gives nothing memorable to Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul), Ballard Berkeley (Fawlty Towers), Mel Smith (Brain Donors), Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter), or Moon Zappa (Spirit of '76). Most embarrassingly, Eric Idle turns up and actually utters the line "It's just a flesh wound" during a sadly flaccid cameo. For Monty Python fans, that stings.
The family stomps through London, Paris, a Bavarian village, and Rome, as we gradually come more and more to hate the family with whom we empathized in the first film. The family gets stuck in a Sisyphean roundabout, Clark dons lederhosen and does full-contact polka dancing, and Ellen inadvertantly becomes a Euro-porn star. Though it's no more than a music-video pastiche, a creatively edited Louvre sequence sticks out like a sore thumb by actually attempting something. Okay, there's also a Sound of Music parody in which Chase warbles a bit, and Heckerling stages a skillful chase climax during the closing Roman segment. But the latter is the fulfillment of the film's extremely belated, halfhearted attempt to cook up a plot (involving a couple of poorly motivated kidnappers). It basically comes down to this: I see London, I see France, I see Chevy do a dumb dance.
Warner probably does National Lampoon's European Vacation more justice than it deserves in its Blu-ray debut. The special-edition disc includes a hi-def transfer—of the film's theatrical cut—that shames previous DVD releases. Solid marks across the board in sharpening up the aging material for its new-format release: color appears accurate, if a bit dull; contrast and black level are solid, and detail takes a noticeable step up from standard definition. Grain gives the image a film-like appearance without ever spilling over into noise. The DTS-HD Master Audio Mono admittedly isn't terribly impressive, but it gets the material across, presumably in a manner faithful to its original theatrical presentation. Though not designed to fill a home theater with a full-bodied, immersive sonic dynamism, the track is clear enough in delivering the dialogue, music and effects of this comedy adventure.
There's only one bonus feature on here, and it's for die hard fans of the film's star. Though it goes strangely unmentioned on the case, a spotty 2002 feature-length commentary by Chevy Chase makes a reprise here. Chase leaves too much dead air, but he does offer opinions about what he enjoyed most about the film and gives a bit of behind-the-scenes info, while also cracking wise when the spirit moves him. It's just hard to imagine casual viewers sticking this one out for over ninety pokey minutes.
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