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"National Lampoon's Vacation" a few years back was a pretty funny movie, almost in spite of itself. Though lighthearted and goofy, the film contained more than it's share of black humor with many of its very dark satirical barbs aimed at every sacred cow you could think of, akin to the zing of the National Lampoon humor magazine.

Some segments of the audience were offended, but most embraced the film and it was a huge success.The less said about "National Lampoon's European Vacation," a dismal artistic and box office failure, the better. If Chevy Chase had not headlined the film, it probably would have joined the dumping ground where the remains of many lame National Lampoon comedies lay unreleased.

But the prolific John Hughes, who scripted the first film, was lured back to write the screenplay for a third in the series, and now we have "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo play, for the third time, Clark and Ellen Griswold, and their country cousins from the first film are reprised by Randy Quaid and Miriam Flynn. Another returnee from the first "Vacation" is Brian Doyle-Murray, though he tackles a different role this time (as Clark's Scroogelike boss).

But the most obvious returning element is "Christmas Vacation's" attempt to get down and dirty like the first film, with a cat instead of a dog being inadvertantly abused this time, with more doddering old relatives to sneer at and by a running gag that has Clark lusting after a lingerie-counter saleswoman in much the same way he slobbered over Christie Brinkley. (As for the latter, Griswold, though he is hailed as the last of the old-fashioned family men, seems to yearn for an adulterous affair, an unfortunate mixed message for young people.)

Most of these aspects are missteps. Rather, the film is at its most amusing when it is merely lampooning traditional Christmas rituals - getting a tree, decorating the house with lights, having the family in for turkey dinner, discovering that a wrapped gift contains a live cat, etc. - replete with inventive sight gags and Chase's patented mugging.

Many of those episodic moments, particularly in the film's first half, are hilarious. But as picture goes along there are far too many dry spells.

One new set of characters are the Griswold's "thirtysomething"-style neighbors, insufferable yuppies whom Clark insults and whose house he partially wrecks with his slapstick antics. A little of these folks goes a long way.

Quaid, as the vulgar, disgusting cousin with no money and a smelly dog, provides some solid laughs, but this is Chase's picture. He gets all the big yucks, and he is at his best when inadvertently driving his car under a truck, locking himself in the attic, sending a block of ice flying through the neighbor's window into his CD player, etc.

Unfortunately, the other players, especially D'Angelo and, as their parents, veteran performers Diane Ladd, John Randolph, E.G. Marshall and Doris Roberts, have little or nothing to do.

Weighing the good with the bad, this picture is worth a look for Chase fans, but it may not hold up to repeat viewings.

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is also not necessarily a trip for the kids; it's rated PG-13 for considerable vulgarity and profanity, along with a fantasy scene that has female nudity.