In the sequel-mad '80s (every bit as bad as we have it today, hard as that may be to believe), it was surely not a surprise that something as successful as National Lampoon's Vacation would generate a quick follow-up, and indeed it took but two years for National Lampoon's European Vacation to come out. Now what do we know about quick sequels? Right! That they usually suck. And so it was with European Vacation, which did a fair enough business but met with nothing like the acclaim of its predecessor, and managed to put the National Lampoon brand name back in mothballs, just two years after Vacation had resurrected it. So it goes.

We are here to talk about the film in the context of screenwriter John Hughes, who had in the two-year interim become something of a big deal as a director with Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, a pair of critically-acclaimed movies that set him up as a Filmmaker To Watch, even if only the second of them really lit the box office on fire. By the time that European Vacation went into production, of course, Hughes had no reputation as the creator of iconic teen films, and one imagines that he could have assumed during the writing stage that if, God forbid, Sixteen Candles did miserably, he'd never have another chance to direct. Thus, a job like European Vacation must not have struck him as ugly hackwork; it was a way of making sure he continued to have enough money to eat. It's only with the benefit of hindsight that we can look as his composite filmography and note that it stands out as the single weirdly out of place element in a span of distinctively "John Hughes" films that otherwise stretches, uninterrupted, from 1984 until at least 1990.

But at any rate, hackwork it is, and not terribly inspired hackwork. Hughes wrote the story, and co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Klane; so even though it's a collaboration, there's no protecting Hughes from the worst of it, as there was in the case of Nate and Hayes. Because the film's problems do indeed begin with the story, which seeks in the most arbitrary way possible to send the Griswald family - renamed, oddly, from Griswold in the original - on an all-expenses paid vacation to England, France, Germany, and Italy, after having won the grand prize on a game show called Pig in a Poke. We get our first look at how different the new film's idea of "comedy" shall be when we see this game in action: it's a Family Feud knock-off (replete with a physically affectionate host played by John Astin, though his name is a parody of Wink Martindale), in which for some reason the contestants are dressed in full-body pig costumes. I think, in light of the film's subsequent twitting of Ugly Americanism, this show is supposed to mock American consumer culture or something along those lines, and if that is the case, it fails.

Anyway, the bulk of the film finds Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and their kids Audrey (Dana Hill, in for Dana Barron) and Rusty (Jason Lively, replacing Anthony Michael Hall, who at the grand old age of 16 was apparently bright enough to realise that his career was heading in better directions than an uninspired Vacation sequel; for it was his refusal to come back that led to the franchise running gag of having new actors play the kids every time) being completely, flailing idiots in every place they go and at everything they do.It's a classic, even quintessential example of one of the primary faults that afflicts so many comedy sequels: do the same stuff as before, only do it BIGGER. For in Vacation, the Griswolds were basically just a normal American family, with the haplessness cranked up a bit: the situations were exaggerated but not impossible, and Clark in particular was enough of a real human being, albeit drawn in thick, caricatured lines, that his descent into madness over the course of the film made sense. The comedy was drawn up from the situation in what was, given the film's broadness, a realistic and sensible way.

European Vacation, in contrast, has the Griswalds knock Stonehenge over (I like to imagine that the otherwise inexplicable change to the second vowel of the family's name was Hughes's subtle way of protecting the original family, for whom he obviously had a great deal more affection and respect: see, they're not the same people! Of course, I'm sure that's not actually the case, but one can dream). They do much else besides knock Stonehenge over; they get involved in a criminal conspiracy in Rome and other hijinks - for "hijinks" is the only word that can properly describe the grimly programmatic wackiness of European Vacation.* But knocking Stonehenge over is a good example of what I'm talking about: the new film's rotund sense of slapstick is a damn clown show next to the character-derived physical humor of the first movie: awkward and unamusing and ridiculous in the bad way, and that's true of the "little" moments as well as the bigger ones.

Compared to that terrible development, the film's other primary comic sin is just an annoyance: its horribly unimaginative embrace of national stereotypes - the overly polite Brit (culminating in Eric Idle's mortifying cameo as a cyclist who apologises for letting the Griswalds run him down in their car), the superficially nice but intensely haughty Frenchman, the seductive but sleazy Italian (the Germans get away scot-free, if you consider the massive Lederhosen-clad dance-off in the town square "scot-free"). This kind of humor can be done well, but not in a movie so otherwise devoid of creativity as European Vacation.

The whole ghastly affair was overseen by Amy Heckerling, who was certainly a step down from Harold Ramis in the comedy mastermind department, but even so, she was absolutely capable of more than this: only three years earlier, she'd overseen the instant-classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a bawdy comedy with all the personality that European Vacation pointedly lacks. It's also the film that jump-started the '80s teen movie wave that Hughes would turn into his personal empire by the decade's end; it's a damn pity that their single collaboration should thus be a joyless farce cashing in on the reputation of a far better movie. But you know, the '80s. Better filmmakers than Hughes and Heckerling gave into the siren call of money in those days, and worse films than the utterly inconsequential European Vacation were often the result of it.