by Mike McGranaghan

Usually, I hate sequels. More often than not, my fondness for a perfectly good film is tarnished by the inadequacy of Parts II, III, and IV. And the more sequels there are, the greater the quality usually declines. Of course, there are exceptions (George Lucas's Star Wars series comes to mind most immediately). Then there's National Lampoon's Vacation series, which has managed to stay consistently funny, from the sharp-edged original Vacation, to the goofy-but-funny European Vacation, to the who-can't-relate-to-this? Christmas Vacation (my personal favorite). Now the fourth installment, Vegas Vacation, is in theaters.

To be honest, I figured the filmmakers would be out of ideas for the Griswold family by this time. Setting the picture in Las Vegas was a good idea, though. As Vegas Vacation opens, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) has just had achieved a major career success: his food preservative has been approved for use, and he has been rewarded with a big raise. To celebrate, he plans to take his family to Vegas, where he and wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) will renew their wedding vows. As usual, the family is less-than-thrilled with the vacation idea. They see Vegas as a land of sex and sin. Nonsense, Clark assures them. He points out that in recent years Vegas has tried to turn itself into a family-friendly place.

I liked the way Vegas Vacation plays on the city's attempted change of image (regardless of spin doctoring, is there a less likely place to take your family?). I also thought it was funny how the Griswolds immediately become seduced by the very aspects of Las Vegas that initially appalled them. Clark begins gambling heavily, Ellen is romanced by Wayne Newton, son Rusty is obsessed with hookers and money, and daughter Audrey falls in with some go-go dancers. The Griswolds go in hopes of having a good time together, but they are almost automatically torn apart by the available vices.

Eventually turning up is Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and family, who now live in a run-down trailer in the middle of the desert. Their home sits on a former nuclear testing ground, which Eddie says accounts for the "50-pound tomatos" that grow in the garden. The white trash antics of Cousin Eddie's clan again provide a lot of humor (one of the best jokes involves the enormous number of body piercings Eddie's son has).

There probably is no use in trying to intellectually justify why Vegas Vacation worked for me. The bottom line is that I laughed. Chevy Chase (despite his critics) has always been a favorite of mine. Even when the movie around him is poor, he makes me laugh. When the material is better suited to him (and the Vacation series is a perfect fit), there's no one funnier. The sheer goofiness he brings to his every-dad character is hilarious. And Randy Quaid is always good for a few big laughs as the offensive Cousin Eddie. Quaid is so willing to portray the sheer unattractiveness of Eddie that I can't help but be amused. When he shows up in a swank casino dressed in flippers and a snorkel, I was laughing hysterically.

You also can't ignore the chemistry between Chase and D'Angelo. They've been playing husband and wife for so long that it almost feels real. She is the perfect match for Chase on screen because she conveys all the love Ellen feels for Clark as well as all the frustration.

One interesting sidenote to the Vacation series involves the kids (played energetically here by Ethan Embry and Marisol Nichols). In the original film, they were younger children. For European Vacation, they were teenagers. By the time Christmas Vacation rolled around, they were young kids again (to show you how long ago that was, consider that Audrey was played by a pre-stardom Juliette Lewis). This time, they are older teenagers once more. In an early scene, Clark tells them he "hardly recognizes" them anymore. It's a funny moment.

A lot of things in Vegas Vacation made me laugh: Eddie's encounter with Wayne Newton, Clark assisting Sigfried & Roy in their stage act, a sexual tryst in an airplane bathroom, etc. While not as observant as Christmas Vacation or as anarchic as the original, Vegas Vacation still has a few tricks up its sleeve. The central idea of the series - even normal families aren't normal - apparently isn't completely exhausted yet. I'm surprised at how much I liked this film.

( out of four)

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