One of my favorite Chevy Chase Christmas movies isn’t National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation even though I like it and watch it several times around Christmas and even in the middle of summer. No, I’m talking about Funny Farm, which was released in 1988, more than a year before NLCV.
While most of the movie is set in the late Summer/early Fall months, the best part of the movie comes in the final act. Chase and Madolyn Smith play Andy and Elizabeth Farmer who leave the hustle and bustle of New York City to move to Vermont countryside. Immediately after arriving there things go wrong. They discover the mailman is a drunken maniac who drives past their house throwing out the mail. Everyone uses payphones in their own homes. The body of the former owner is buried in the backyard.
Andy is a sportswriter who has a contract to write a novel with a $10,000 advance. But he initially has writer’s block. But Elizabeth, who was a school teacher, gets the writing bug and starts to work on her own book, a children books about squirrels. Eventually, Andy realizes the quaint little New England hamlet town of Redbud isn’t what he thought. He turns to heavy drinking and hanging out with the simple-minded Criterion Brothers, Lon and Don played by Bill Fagerbakke and Nicholas Wyman, who came and removed the body of the previous owner.
Trouble arises as Elizabeth grows tired of Andy’s behavior and she walks out when she finds out he submitted her manuscript to her publisher so he wouldn’t have to return the advance. Not wanting to stay in Redbud, they devise a plan to sell their house to some new suckers. When Bud and Betsy Culbertson (Jack Gilpin and Caris Corfman) drive up in the snow-covered landscape in their Waggoneer, Andy radios for the Criterion Brothers to release a fawn that will run across in front of them.
Andy has told all the townspeople that he will pay them each a $50 bonus if they act like “normal small town life” that are in Normal Rockwell paintings featured in the Saturday Evening Posts. They will also donate $1,500 from their sale to the town of Redbud as well. And the people do their damnedest for the money. The mailman finally stops and acts like a gentleman in front of the Culbertson much to Andy’s surprise. There’s a live nativity scene in the town square which looks like a Thomas Kinkaide painting.
But things get weirder as they walk into the local diner and everyone, patrons and staff, greet them in unison with a “Merry Christmas!” They hang around the Farmers property singing carolers till it almost seems like some zombie movie as they are lurking after the Farmers and Culbertsons. The irony is that what the Farmers and Culbertsons expect in rural small-town life is a fantasy.
Funny Farm wasn’t one of Chase’s biggest hits grossing $25 million on a $19 million budget. But it was one of Chase’s most well-reviewed movies especially from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert who praised it. Ebert said it was the first time Chase seemed to deliver a performance rather than an appearance and Siskel called it the best movie he had done.
It’s also grown over the years as a cult fan favorite. Directed by George Roy Hill and it would be his final movie as he adds his own quirky tone to the movie. It was written by Jeffrey Boam, the late prolific screenwriter based on a novel by Jay Cronley. Originally the script was reportedly a little more racier as Chase, who made it through his production company, toned it down. It needs to be toned down. There’s a lot of humor in this movie with its characters that don’t need to be ruined by cheap laughs.
Some of the other fans I’ve heard say the problem was the movie was geared toward adults but marketed toward children. I think the older you get in life you appreciate the gullible attitude of the Farmers. Andy must be a writer for the New York Times to live where he does in New York and drive a 1955 MG TF 1500 convertible. Elizabeth was probably a school teacher at a private school. When Andy looks at the pond outside his home, he says he can probably reach in and pull out a fish, but all he manages is a snake.
Also, seeing that it doesn’t take them long to make it from New York City to Redbud, I’m guessing they’re not straying too far from their friends and people they knew. They’re not leaving the city behind to start anew in small-town America, they’re expecting small-town America to fit their desires.
Chevy’s other Christmas movie was National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in his third portrayal as Clark W. Griswold, the food additive designer from Chicago. While the previous movies shows snippets of the Griswold home, this movie takes place in and around their Chicago suburban neighborhood and Clark’s Chicago office. Beverly D’Angelo returns as Ellen Griswold and the children are recast again with Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis as Russ and Audrey.
Clark Griswold is the ying to Andy Farmer’s yang. He’s a man who has delusions of grandeur on how he wants to have a good old-fashioned family Christmas. A scene in which he finds old home videos in the attic shows that Clark lives in that Norman Rockwell-Thomas Kinkade mindset. Unfortunately, reality isn’t giving Clark any leeway.
Their parents show up to stay and immediately they’re arguing with each other. Clark’s parents are Clark Sr. and Nora (John Randolph and Diane Ladd) who seem to be more old-fashioned and homey. Ellen’s parents, Art and Francine Smith (E.G. Marshall and Doris Roberts) are more critical of Clark and more extravagant. Clark sets up 25,000 twinkling lights around his house that Art quickly notices aren’t twinkling after Clark has some initial problems getting them to work.
His next-door neighbors almost seem like a younger version of Art and Francine. They are Todd and Margo Chester (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), yuppies who don’t like Clark. When Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his family show up in their rusty motor home, they discover that Clark isn’t so bad as one morning Eddie is emptying the toilet into the storm drain delivering the greeting to Todd, “Merry Christmas! Shitter was full!”
Clark is also awaiting a big Christmas bonus as he has put a deposit on a pool to be built in the backyard, but doesn’t have enough in his money to cover the check. This leads to some frustration as Christmas nears especially on Christmas Eve when everything bad that happens does. When Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel) arrive, they discover that the gifts they brought were Bethany’s Jell-O mold and their long-haired cat.
The Christmas Eve dinner goes south immediately as Bethany whose senile says the Pledge of Allegiance instead of the blessing. When Clark cuts into the turkey, it deflates because Edddie’s wife, Catherine (Miriam Flynn) says they cooked it too long and made it dry. And Clark discovers that Bethany used canned wet cat food to make the Jell-O mold.
Eddie’s dog, Snots, a Rottweiler is under the table yakking up a bone after “nosing through the trash.” When Lewis goes to smoke his “stogie,” he throws the match behind him in the tree which is dry itself as Snots has been drinking the tree water. And then a courier drops off Clark’s bonus, which isn’t money as he expected. Clark has been enrolled in the Jelly of the Month club and then loses it.
Clark wants everything to run smoothly, until it doesn’t run smoothly. And things go from bad to worse as the evening progresses leading to Snots chasing a squirrel through the house causing damage and Eddie going off to kidnap Clark’s cheapskate boss, Frank Shirley (Brian Doyle-Murray) leading to a SWAT team breaking in to arrest everyone.
It’s an outrageous movie, yes, but it’s a hilarious movie as Clark is like the one soldier who refuses to surrender. Clark is the epitome of “American Exceptionalism” in which he believes that everything exists for the greater good. So, a few things went bad with the Christmas Eve events, Clark feels he can still make it up by reading “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” As Ellen tells him earlier in the movie, he sets standards that no family event can live up to.
During a conversation between Clark and his dad, he mentions about how bad their Christmas holidays were and this hints to why Clark is so adamant on always making thing the best he can. This was prevalent in National Lampoon’s Vacation and National Lampoon’s European Vacation as he talks enthusiastically about seeing the world’s tallest ball of twine or going as far as buying the family personalized berets when they’re sight-seeing in Paris.
And while we watched Clark watching an old home movie about Christmas when he was a kid, there probably was a lot that the black and white footage didn’t show. That’s why people get so agitated at Christmas time. How many of you get up at 5 a.m. to start preparing a dinner? Or you’re up with your kids at time opening presents? How many times do you spend Christmas afternoon preparing a dinner only to end the day more tired?
There’s so much going on that others in the movie are frustrated as well. Both Russ and Audrey have had to give up their bedrooms for their grandparents are sleeping together on a hide-a-bed or a futon. When Audrey tells her mother about this, Ellen just passes it off. At the same time, Ellen is frustrated because the grandparents there has her smoking again which Francine can smell from anyway in the house. Needless to say, we see Francine smoking. She just doesn’t want her daughter to do it.
Sometimes the best holidays, not just Christmas, but Thanksgiving, Easter and birthdays are the ones you don’t plan for every detail. With the second year of Covid causing a change of plans with people as they’re saying the Omicron variant may be worse, people are rushing to return to these big-family dinners, but you may realize that you liked them more smaller and more informal.