Rating: 2 out of 5
Johnson Family Vacation captures the experience of a road trip very well: the long stretches of boredom, the frustration that nothing exciting is up ahead, the failure to get comfortable. I somehow don't think that was the movie's intention, seeing how it's billed as a comedy.
Cedric The Entertainer plays Nate Johnson, a father with a lot on his mind. He and his wife, Dorothy (Vanessa Williams), are going through a rough patch, though they live just live just down the street from each other. Their son (Bow Wow, no longer Lil' Bow Wow) wants to be a rapper, much to Dad's chagrin, while their older daughter (Solange Knowles, Beyonce's sis) is growing into a body and social conscience that's about five years ahead of the curve. Only their little daughter seems at ease, though she has an imaginary dog.
This California crew has decided, for phantom reasons, to drive together to the Johnson family reunion in Missouri. Nate is determined to snatch the coveted "Family of the Year" award from his older brother Mack (Steve Harvey), a smooth talker who is always smiling.
As soon as the trip begins, it's apparent that we're in for a bumpy ride, even though Nate's Lincoln Navigator is pimped out (please don't ask why). Aspects of the kids' personalities are presented at first, but the siblings eventually devolve into well-dressed props, occasionally responding to Dad's crazy shenanigans, which aren't that crazy and not at all funny: Unless you find stolen bathing suits, alligators in bed, and people nearly drinking urine a riot. If that's your cup of tea, then you're in for a treat.
But we've seen variations of those scenes in countless movies before, the last one in a memorable sequence from Dumb & Dumber. Johnson is actually a retread of National Lampoon's Vacation, but without any of the quirks or memorable characters that made most of the movies in the series so enjoyable. Cedric the Entertainer is given an inconsistent character and can never find a funny groove. One minute he's a stern taskmaster, the next he's confident and cocky. And Williams' character is an absolute pill: She's mean, manipulative and all together unpleasant. The two leads have no rapport together -- be it fueled by bitterness or love -- whatsoever. The script doesn't help them, as their status as content couple or bickering divorcees is apparently decided at random.
Another problem: The movie is way too clean. There's a scene where a comely hitchhiker (Shannon Elizabeth) hops on board with the Johnson clan. She's sitting mere inches from the Bow Wow character, who reacts as if he's sitting next to a sack of flour. What heterosexual man over the age of 12 wouldn't take a shot at Shannon Elizabeth? And wouldn't it be fun to see father and son vie for her affections? Nothing remotely close to that happens. The movie continually plays it safe and goofy, and doesn't allow anyone to let loose. Wasn't Cedric one of the Kings of Comedy? Bow Wow seems like a pretty gregarious personality, can't someone throw him a love interest or have him get into some trouble? Can't Williams shake her steady but bland Radio Shack persona?
The movie hints at some mischief when Cedric the Entertainer takes on a second role, the lecherous Uncle Earl. And Harvey lends some chuckles as the competitive Mack -- his fight scenes with Nate are funny. By that time, it's too little too late. Nate and his clan are deep into their vacation and we've been figuring out for a while how we can get them back home.
DVD extras include two commentary tracks (that's about two too many for a road trip movie, no?) and a set of deleted scenes with commentary.
Everybody's kung fu fighting.
Facts and Figures
Run time: 97 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 7th April 2004
Box Office USA: $31.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $31.2M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Production compaines: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Hallway Pictures, Bird and a Bear Entertainment, Catch Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 6%
Fresh: 5 Rotten: 85
IMDB: 4.2 / 10
Cast & Crew
Director: Christopher Erskin
Screenwriter: Todd R. Jones, Earl Richey Jones
Starring: Cedric the Entertainer as Nate Johnson / Uncle Earl, Vanessa Williams as Dorothy Johnson, Steve Harvey as Mack Johnson, Shari Headley as Jacqueline, Bow Wow as D.J. Johnson, Solange Knowles as Nikki Johnson, Kat Graham as Dancer, Jason Momoa as Navarro