A little more than 20 years after Clark Griswold took the family on the road in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, which had a number of good laughs, we get “Johnson Family Vacation”, which held promise for featuring Cedric the Entertainer (the hilarious old-time barber in the “Barbershop” movies) in the lead role. Fans of cross-America car trips gone wrong, I advise not to set your expectations too high, though the fault lies not with Cedric but with most of everything else. When the most memorable thing about a comedy is a dead-on remark about the loose definition of a hit album in today’s music industry early on, you know there was something missing.
Nate Johnson (Cedric) is an L.A. insurance salesman who gathers the troops for what he wants to be a family-strengthening car trek to the traditional Johnson family gathering in small-town Missouri. There’s his wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams), who he’s been separated from for three months, daughters Nikki (Solange Knowles) and little Destiny (Gabby Soleil) and their aspiring rapper son D.J. (Lil’ Bow Wow). Nikki is the typically sexy-dressing, self-involved teenager who’s too busy talking fashion with her friend to hear the knock on the door, so it’s better to call her on her cell phone. D.J. is so annoying on the ride back from a car dealership before the trip begins that you wish he’d mysteriously lose his voice for the rest of the movie. He gets less irritating as it goes, but that’s not saying much. And Destiny, for some puzzling reason, has a make-believe dog that she sometimes makes her dad go after.
It’s the first screenplay for brothers Todd and Earl Jones and a first feature for director Christopher Erskin, who I gather, like so many others nowadays, comes from the world of music videos and commercials. The film is not all that bad, but certainly not a success in my book. It feels disconnected and the laughs are few and far between, with some objectionable parts. Perhaps the filmmakers saw humor in throwing CDs out the window (nobody will notice if the highway’s used as a trash can, right? Not to mention this family is apparently so well-off that it’s just a few CDs) during a let’s-play-this-not-that moment on the highway. I did not. There’s also a tasteless bit in a motel when Cedric inquires about locating an authentic Native American village, and a weird encounter with a “Duel”-style truck.
Steve Harvey, who plays Nate’s arrogant brother Mack at the family reunion, is left stranded with a cartoonish role with mercifully short appearances. The same can roughly be said of the ravishing Shannon Elizabeth, who plays a suspicious hitchhiker involved with some form of witchcraft that may or may not involve a pet alligator.
I did enjoy Cedric pulling double duty in the guise of fast-talking mechanic Uncle Earl, and there is the odd visually-inspired funny moment like the public phone in the middle of a cornfield. It’s not enough to rescue the movie, though. The actual family reunion, when we get there, seems to go on forever, especially coming on the trail of a less than enthralling journey. Close to the end, as he’s leaving the stage of the reunion’s talent show to Nate and his family, Mack tells the gathering, whatever they do, “Please don’t fall asleep”. I am sorry to report that at that point, I had been dangerously close to doing just that, and for several minutes.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay