The overlap between Christmas Cinema and the Morbid Curiosity Files is fairly small. Sure, Hallmark and Lifetime produce hundreds of “Christmas” movies every year that are nothing but saccharine romantic comedies and pedestrian musicals featuring people who never should have been allowed to sing, but there aren’t very many Christmas films that look as though they’ll have that special cheesy kind of badness to them that makes me curious enough to check them out. But when I saw there was a spin-off of Christmas Vacation, one of my favorite Christmas films, but not starring Chevy Chase and instead focusing on Cousin Eddie, I knew it was one I had to check out.
The movie was released in 2003; I initially thought it was direct-to-video, but some research reveals it actually debuted on television first, carried by NBC. It’s directed by Nick Marck, whose previous and subsequent credits consist almost entirely of episodes of television shows. The writer on the film is Matty Simmons; he actually does have a prior association with the Vacation franchise, in that he’s been a producer or executive producer on all of the films. He was not, however, a writer on any of them. His previous writing credits include the Baby Huey Easter special, Two Reelers and Delta House. You might recognize those last two as projects you’ve never heard of; both are failed TV series. Delta House is notable in that it was an attempt to spin Animal House into an ongoing television series (with John Belushi as Bluto replaced by his cousin “Blotto”). So Simmons does have prior experience making spin-offs of hit National Lampoon movies that lack the qualities that made the originals hits.
Maybe they should have handed writing duties over to the chimp.
Like all the Vacation movies, the basic premise is simple. In this case, Eddie Johnson is given an all-expenses-paid island vacation for Christmas as an attempt to buy him off when he’s injured protesting his latest termination. Cousin Eddie is played by Randy Quaid, reprising his role from the earlier movies, and Miriam Flynn also reprises her role as his wife Kathryn — though she seems to have just slightly more on the ball this time around. Surprisingly, there is one other actress who reprises her role: Dana Barron as Audrey Griswold. This is surprising for a couple reasons. First, I honestly expected there wouldn’t be any Griswolds at all in the picture; it just seemed like the sort of thing they might name drop and then leave out of it. Second, Dana Barron was the actress who played Audrey in the original Vacation, not in Christmas Vacation. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just interesting. Audrey ends up going along for the trip due to having let the Johnsons stay in her house for a few weeks. Unfortunately, her characterization here consists solely of being brokenhearted over getting dumped by her boyfriend and trying to find a new one. Granted Audrey was never the most well-rounded character among the Griswold clan, but it’s about as trite a motivation as there can be.
Also, why would anyone let Eddie stay in their house unsupervised?
Also along on the trip are Ed Asner as Eddie’s lecherous uncle Nick, and Jake Thomas as Eddie’s son “Third” Johnson. Most of Eddie’s kids aren’t in the film; they’re referenced, but they’re “staying at Grandma’s”, except for the one stripping in Vegas (as seen in Vegas Vacation). “Third” is so-called because his real name is Clark; he’s named for Chevy Chase’s character, and since Clark W. Griswold is actually Clark Jr., that makes the youngest Clark the “Third”. Though apparently nobody told Eddie that the numbering only applies when the surname is the same, it’s still actually one of the minor (and rare) little hints of something resembling emotional depth in this film, as it indicates just how much Eddie respects Clark. “Third” is uncharacteristically intelligent for a member of his family, probably because the film needs someone to act as a foil to Eddie in the elder Clark’s absence, and is embarrassed by his dim-witted father. The main emotional thrust of the film is Eddie trying to win his son’s respect.
Who could be embarrassed by being related to Eddie?
The problem with having that as the emotional center of the film is that it’s very difficult to try and make someone seem respectable while still having them be the butt of every joke — and Cousin Eddie was designed to be the butt of jokes. Making Eddie competent enough to be respected would mean making Eddie into something he’s not, and so the film errs on the side of keeping Eddie Eddie and having “Third” simply accept what success Eddie does luck into. It’s the right decision, for what it’s worth, but it doesn’t make for a strong narrative either way.
Still, a Vacation film is easily saved by the comic aspects… at least if they’re good. There are some good laughs in this film. The scene in the airport has some rather Airplane-esque gags (in tone, not in actual content; it’s not stealing anything), and Eric Idle reprises his role from European Vacation as a put-upon fellow tourist. The physical gags he’s the victim of are reasonably funny, though personally I got a bigger laugh out of how gracefully he takes it. It’s one of the highlights of the movie, and I’m not sure if it might have helped had his role been larger, or if it just would have been spreading it too thin. Outside of that, the best scenes are generally those involving Fred Willard as Eddie’s former boss; these aren’t high points of comedic dialogue, but they’re at about Willard’s usual level. Funny enough to enjoy, not funny enough to sell the film on their own.
It doesn’t matter what position Fred Willard’s characters hold, they always remind me of used car salesmen.
The problem is that outside of those scenes, the rest of the movie falls flat. There’s a fair amount of crude humor, whether it’s the dog peeing on things or farting, or Uncle Nick hitting on their island tour guide (Sung Hi Lee). Ed Asner’s a pretty good actor, but it takes more than he’s given here to make “creepy uncle” an entertaining character to watch. And the one thing that comedy really needs in order to work is lacking in all but a few scenes — the timing is consistently off on the jokes. Dialogue suffers from occasional pauses as characters reach for the punchlines; Jake Thomas is most notable for delayed responses here, in contrast to the great performance Johnny Galecki gave as Russ in Christmas Vacation. Physical gags also seem to suffer from timing issues, so it may be the fault of the director rather than the actors, at least in some cases. The physical gags are also hampered by the all-too-obvious special effects. Most of the disasters that befall Eddie and his family fail to amuse because they fail to convince.
Perhaps worst of all, it just doesn’t feel quite like a Vacation film. The idea of an island vacation is a natural extension of the Vacation series, and could have been a lot of fun. But the series really only works with the Griswolds, and Chevy Chase. As some comics have noted, slapstick gets funnier as the victim gets smarter. The fun is watching a basically intelligent person fall on his face repeatedly due to circumstances beyond his control. But when Cousin Eddie is the protagonist, it doesn’t work as well; when it comes to intelligence, he’s the lowest common denominator, as is emphasized throughout the film. It’s not unsalvageable, but without the sense of cosmic irony it loses something. And in the case of this film, that something isn’t made up for in other ways.
Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure isn’t as bad as I expected it to be. There are still some places that made me laugh, and there aren’t a lot of scenes that made me groan. But while it’s not as bad as I had expected, it’s still a far cry from being good. Most of the film is worth a smile at best. And I have the feeling that, like Cousin Eddie himself, the film is apt to overstay its welcome; while Christmas Vacation becomes even easier to appreciate on repeat viewings, Christmas Vacation 2 feels like it’s the kind of film that will only get harder to appreciate each time around.