Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 4, 2010)
If you look at a short list of Chevy Chaseís hit films, youíll indeed discover itís a very short list. Itíd include 1980ís Caddyshack, 1983ís National Lampoonís Vacation, and 1985ís Fletch. Interestingly, Chase went on to appear in sequels to all three of these. He was the only original castmember of Caddyshack to come back for its flop 1988 sequel, and he also returned for 1989ís Fletch Lives.
Neither of those franchises made it past a second iteration, however. Chaseís most enduring chain is definitely Vacation, which has so far offered three theatrical sequels. None of these enjoyed the success or fan popularity of the original.
First out of the hopper came 1985ís National Lampoonís European Vacation. This one assumes you saw the original flick, as it provides very little exposition to establish the characters. At the very start of the film, we re-encounter the Griswold family from the first movie: father Clark (Chase), mother Ellen (Beverly DíAngelo), and teen children Audrey (Dana Hill) and Rusty (Jason Lively). They appear on a TV game show called Pig in a Poke where they win the grand prize: an all-expenses-paid two-week trek across Europe.
And thereís your plot! Essentially, European features no real storyline; it just plops the Griswolds in Europe as an excuse to show them encounter various wacky scenarios. They begin in London and then move to Paris, Germany and Rome before they finally come home. The closest thing to a plot relates to Clarkís continued obsessiveness; he wants to complete a happily family vacation no matter what the cost.
However, Europeanís Clark lacks the same drive and fervor found in the first film. Sure, he expresses his intent to get his own way and move forward despite many setbacks - and persistent disinterest from his family - but these elements felt lackluster and forced. In Vacation, Chase made Clark a man possessed, but this one did little more than pay lip service to that original attitude.
That lackadaisical tone spread to the whole movie. For the most part, European seemed to exist just to be a sequel. The first film had some spark and originality, but European felt obvious and forced. Really, Clarkís obsession influenced and united the original movie; he worked toward a nervous breakdown as various societal elements ruined his big family trip. In the sequel, Clark essentially became little more than the ugly American. Very few of the problems occurred due to external forces; Clark caused most of them, as he seemed more and more like a bumbling fool.
Despite the lack of focus, European had some entertaining moments. The satirical view of British politeness could be mildly funny, and a case of mistaken identity in Germany also generated a few laughs. However, most of the humor really didnít go anywhere. The gags didnít seem overtly bad for the most part, but they just fell flat.
Part of the problem related to the acting. As noted, Chase came across with little of the spark or energy he displayed in the first flick, and that left a big hole at the center. DíAngelo was adequate but left without much to do, while the kids created substantial concerns. We found neither of the original actors; Anthony Michael Hall played Rusty the first time, while Dana Barron portrayed Audrey. (Apparently the filmmakers wanted to keep the kids the same age for all the Vacation flicks even as Clark and Ellen aged.) Lively appeared too goofy and grating, and I actively disliked Hill. Honestly, I never could stand her, and her presence remained emotive and fussy. With that dumpling face, she looked like a Cabbage Patch Kid come to life, and her acting followed suit, as she seemed broad and whiny.
Frankly, European Vacation wasnít an unpleasant experience, but it appeared bland and unmemorable. The movie rambled through its 94 minutes with little spark or excitement, and some weak acting from the main cast didnít help matters. Iíve seen many crummier films than European Vacation, but I still thought this one was lackluster and only sporadically entertaining.
Casting note: as I watched European, I marveled at how good DíAngelo looked for her age. As it happens, I didnít need to marvel; she was only 30 at the time! Surprisingly, Hill was less than a decade younger than DíAngelo; only Chase - who was well into his forties in 1985 - actually could have sired the girl.