There’s a formula John Hughes uses when it comes to making the despicable characters seem not so bad as the story goes—he provides somebody worse. In Dutch, for example, Dutch Dooley was a horrible guy, but at least he wasn’t as arbitrarily uncaring as Doyle’s father. Similarly, in Christmas Vacation, Clark’s (and the movie’s, really) reliance on money and capitalism in defining a good Christmas sits next to those yuppies next door. There’s nothing to like about Todd and Margo, right?
The thing is, there’s nothing particularly horrible about them. The movie just assumes we won’t like them so all the bad things that happen to them because of Clark Griswold, deliberately or not, are justified. They’ve got money. They’re too good for Christmas trees. They’ve got fancy entertainment equipment (destroyed by the ice) and fancy workout clothes. And, worst of all, they like each other. No one should like these people. Clark, on the other hand, all around good guy, loving (and faithful) husband and good father...
But, let’s break it down.
We are first introduced to Todd and Margo as Clark is going to cut down the oversized tree he’s gotten from the forest. Todd and Margo have metal briefcases, Todd has 80s stockbroker hair and Margo wears sunglasses... at night. “Looks like the toad overestimated the height of his living room ceiling.” Not so nice calling Clark a “toad,” Margo, but she’s got a point. Clark got himself a tree he does not have room for. Todd asks, “Hey Griswold, where do you think you’re going to put a tree that big?” A valid question, even if Todd’s tone is not very nice. Clark’s response: “Bend over and I’ll show you.” Well, that escalated quickly. Todd: “You’ve got a lot of nerve talking to me like that, Griswold.” I agree. Clark’s reply: “I wasn’t talking to you.” So, in response to Todd’s legitimate (if tonally a little rude) question, Clark has threatened to shove a tree into his Margo’s... well, let’s just say it would not go very well. And, Clark is kind of an ass.
Then, it’s Todd and Margo’s turn to be jerks. Clark is getting the ladder ready to get to work on the Christmas lights. Margo: “I hope he falls and breaks his neck.” Todd: “I’m sure he’ll fall, but I don’t think we’re lucky enough to have him break his neck.” Not nice. And, they’ve both got sunglasses now, though, to be fair, it is daytime.
Todd does seem a bit of a whiner when he says, “Well, obviously something had to break the window, something had to hit the stereo.” But, they came home from... wherever to find their stereo mangled, and in 1989 that fancy a stereo was probably pretty expensive.
Todd and Margo have matching workout clothes. In a different movie, that would be cute. Here, we’re supposed to see it as pretentious and snooty, like they’re too good for normal workout clothes. They also are into each other; Todd wants to drink some wine and kiss Margo all over. Margo has to take this a bad direction, though, as she insists (appropriately, but not politely) after he showers, of course.
And, after they have presumably showered, sure enough, they’ve got some wine and they’re making out like a nice happy couple. And Clark interrupts with his lights. And, the sudden return to darkness—twice—means pratfalls and damaged furniture for the Chesters. They are innocent victims this time.
On the other end of the spectrum, of course, we get Eddie. The yuppie couple—the Chesters, apparently—are bad because they think they’re better than people like Clark. But, Clark actually is better than the likes of Cousin Eddie. Clark inhabits some magical middle ground in which he’s amazing and the bad stuff he does just doesn’t matter.
Eddie wears a black dickey under a tight, white v-neck. Despicable stuff.
Todd appears briefly again, in time to interact with Eddie, emptying his “shitter” into the sewer. He smells the stench and goes back inside. It’s brief but we laugh, if we’re not already laughing at Eddie outside in his tiny little robe and his silly little hat.
Then Todd and Margo disappear for a while. Christmas Eve for the Griswolds takes the focus. We don’t see the Chesters again until Clark freaks out and cuts down a new tree. Their conversation about not having a Christmas tree—
Margo: “Aren’t you just the teeniest bit sorry that we didn’t get a Christmas tree?” [Nice. The Chesters don’t have to be the kind of people who don’t celebrate Christmas—clearly a bad kind of people for a Christmas movie’s audience. Margo is almost demonstrating some “Christmas spirit.” Then, she immediately ruins it.] “I mean, even though they’re dirty and messy and corny and cliched.” [At least she said “cliched” and didn’t leave off that “d” at the end like so many people do these days.]
Todd: [level-headed and an awesome counter to what’s happening concurrently with Clark] “Well, where are you going to find a tree at this hour on Christmas Eve?
—is interrupted by Clark’s new tree falling through the window. The Chesters, again, are Clark’s victims.
Meanwhile, the Griswolds and guests are playing Monopoly, a game about capitalism.
Amidst the squirrel action, we see Todd and Margo outside. They have apparently taken their time being angry about the tree.
Margo: “You just march right over there and slug that creep in the face.”
Todd: [level-headed again] “I can’t just attack someone.”
Margo: “Alright then, if you’re not man enough to put an end to this shit, then I am.” [Did she have to make it about gender? I mean, considering my history with that topic time and time again in this blog.]
After being attacked by the squirrel and dog, Margo returns home, her outfit a mess. “My God,” Todd says, “what happened to you?” And she slugs him. This is what Clark’s actions have driven Margo Chester to: violence. It is a sad, but not entirely unexpected, result of Clark’s destructive activity. The other, in retrospect, logical result is Eddie’s kidnapping of Clark’s boss.
And there we get the other bit of John Hughes’ formula: aside from Todd and Margo, we also get a Scrooge-Figure in Clark’s boss. And, Brian Doyle-Murray’s Frank Shirley, of course, has a quick change of heart to make everything ok, much like Roy Walley in the original.
Then, just to top Frank Shirley is his wife Helen who actually checks her makeup before following the police into the Griswold home. Still dressed in her nightgown, she has managed to put on pearls and a fur coat... but then, she gets upset at Frank’s getting rid of his employees’ bonuses.