Taking Wally World hostage after an mangled cross-country road trip in “Vacation” (1983) was emblematic of the dawning Reagan 80s. Clark wasn’t going to be denied, and if life didn’t deal him the hand he wanted, he’d take what he felt entitled to- this was his moment.
Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 coincided with the Boomer’s coming of age and taking over the cultural reigns of the West, and Reagan played to their newfound feeling of social control. Like a college freshman overwhelmed with the trivialities of burgeoning freedom, Boomers were getting high on their own supply and quickly gaining weight. They were mad with control and looking to carve-out a society in their own image- and Ronald Reagan was the man to get them there.
Like the Boomer, Reagan was an incoherent mash-up of the traditional and the progressive- the former mostly in appearances, which is all the Boomer really wanted anyway. Reagan was the kind, jelly-bean eating Grandfather. He was able to deliver epic, grandiose speeches providing Boomers with all the right feelings, and little else behind them. He had the perfect face for a stamp; the kind of president the Boomer could be proud of.
But before things got too square and uncool, or just like their parents, Reagan proved he was a new kind of traditional- a modern, hip kind of traditional- by backing no-fault divorce as Governor of California. For a generation raised on free love, key parties and the rise of mainstream pornography in the 1970s, this move spoke to the Boomer’s fickle sense of responsibility. No longer would the rotten bonds of marriage contain them; this was a generation who would not be limited, and this was their moment.
The ending of “Vacation” played to this cultural enthusiasm. Like the first Friday night of Christmas break, the road to be forged lay barren before the Boomer- there existed nothing but hope and promise. But Reagan burning them, playing on their naive optimism and delivering very little in return, only served to confuse them. I mean, who ever would have thought an actor would turn out to be a tremendous liar? The Boomer got blindsided.
Like a street magician using misdirection, Reagan had the Boomer focused on “morning in America”- a kind of proto-Make America Great Again slogan meant to signal the re-dawning of a golden age- while picking their pocket and calling them an asshole. In 1986, three years after Clark took Wally World hostage, Reagan signed an amnesty agreement for all illegals in the country before 1982. It was never about a golden dawn for America, instead Reagan was redefining what it meant to be American.
Though the Boomer may not have known it at the time, this redefinition neutered what they had wanted from a Reagan administration. Even if they went along for the ride- an accusation of racism is a Boomer’s Kryptonite- creating an America open to whomever wanted to saddle up to it ultimately destroys any notion of what it means to be American; stamping out the collective pride and spirit which catapulted Reagan to the presidency. In the 1984 election, Reagan won forty-nine states- a feat laughably impossible for Republicans today.
And when we revisit Clark just a few years later, the false promises of Ronald Reagan’s presidency feel tangible. “Christmas Vacation” (1989) is all but a remake of the original, only without the hopeful idealism of a wide eyed Clark Griswold bent on defining himself as the perfect father by engineering the perfect moment. While the character’s motivations are the same, the subtle differences stand out- Clark feels like he’s going through the motions; a more dead-eyed and downtrodden Clark Griswold.
By the end of the 80s the Boomer was done playing for real. They figured out they were sold a load of shit, they couldn’t actually “have it all,” and what they did manage to cobble together wasn’t exactly what they wanted. Even if they had the house and the family, items still on many of my generation’s wish list, they didn’t appreciate it. It wasn’t flashy or exciting; it was expected. Everyone has a house and a family, a fact that didn’t jive well with the Boomer’s thirst for superiority and fragile sense of self.
Even if forcing his way into Wally World spoke to Clark’s Boomer sense of entitlement, there was still something rather noble about the whole thing. It felt like Clark earned his entry to the park through his misadventures- the ending of “Vacation” works because the audience was along with Clark for the journey. “Christmas Vacation” uses the same premise but without the accompanying journey for the audience to rationalize the entitlement.
This time Clark wants a big swimming pool for his big house, theoretically relying on a bonus check from work to pay for it, and when he doesn’t get it Clark goes berserk. Entitlement for the sake of entitlement- Clark wants what Clark wants because Clark wants it. Heartwarming, I know.
Clark has also dropped any sense of idealism when dealing with family. If visiting Eddie was gross in “Vacation,” Clark was still gonna try to be a good guy about it. The joke was less about how disgusting Eddie is, and more about seeing how much good guy Clark could take before losing it. “Christmas Vacation” skips past this with a far less sophisticated take on how much family sucks. Clark is done bothering to put up appearances, and is irritated with his family from the moment they walk in the door. Eddie isn’t even invited this time around, crashing the family’s Christmas, and isn’t it funny how gross he is?
Humor that could certainly resonate with the disillusioned Boomer by the end of the decade- their dreams were shattered and they needed their egos coddled. Enter the yuppies who live next to the Griswolds, sandwiched into the story for this very reason. You see, while the younger generation of upwardly-mobile professionals may seem fashionable and hip- a fact that frightened the Boomer- they actually aren’t. Just like family, they suck, and isn’t that funny?
The screenwriting of “Christmas Vacation” is really that lethargic; everyone sucks but the noble Boomer, who is cooler than their parents, more authentic than the younger generation, and can always have a good laugh at the white working class. The movie limps along at this pace, dragging its feet until the climax where Eddie takes Clark’s boss hostage and Clark gets his swimming pool.
When idealism dies, nihilism takes its place; when false idealism is perused, nihilism is inevitable. The Boomer misunderstood the reality around them, hitched their wagon to the wrong horse, and lost the bet before they knew the game was over. By the end of the 80s, the disillusioned Boomer just wanted someone to tell them it was okay, that the sinking ship was salvageable, and that they’d have another chance. That they weren’t wrong, and the things they valued really were what was important. And, if that wasn’t possible- if it really was too late- they’d settle for knowing that everyone else sucked.
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