Johnson Family Vacation

on April 07, 2004 by Wade Major
The operative word in the title of "Johnson Family Vacation" is, of course, "Vacation," as in "National Lampoon's." Though the Johnsons are trekking from L.A. to the Midwest in contrast with the Griswolds' reverse trip, there's little question that first-time writers Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones were inspired by the '80s-era John Hughes-scripted antics of Chevy Chase and family, even going so far as to almost identically replicate the introductory "car rental" scene. Unfortunately, inspiration only goes so far in this well-intentioned but narratively skeletal effort from first-time director Christopher Erskin. Sans the cynicism and the over-the-top incorrectness of the Chase films, "Johnson Family Vacation" is left to fumble about with time-honored clich├ęs about the value of family that aren't necessarily in harmony with type of broad comedy audiences expect from such pictures.

The always-charming Cedric the Entertainer plays Nate Johnson, a family patriarch whose only real authority exists in his own mind. He's recently separated from wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) and has next to no real control over his children, grade-schooler Destiny (Gabby Soleil), aspiring rapper D.J. (Bow Wow) and fashion plate Nikki (Solange Knowles, younger sister of singer Beyonce). But in the interest of making at least one last stab at family solidarity, the clan agrees to make the ugly trek back to Missouri for their first family reunion in years, a gathering that will put them squarely in the sights of Nate's highly judgmental mother (Aloma Wright) and psychotically competitive brother (Steve Harvey).

As one might expect, the road trip provides most of the intended laughs, but they're not cohesively pieced together. Cedric is certainly talented and funny enough on his own to sustain interest, but one can't help but feel he's treading water through much of the picture's middle section. By the time the reunion comes around, the movie settles into a more comfortable groove, with Cedric and Harvey feeding expertly off each other. In several brief interludes, Cedric also doubles up as his own Uncle Earl, a lusty backwater mechanic with hilariously poor grooming habits.

There's plenty of talent to go around in this film, but the pieces just don't quite gel. More disappointing than outright disappointment, it has the feeling of being just one rewrite, one take, one more second of comedic timing off. That everyone involved will clearly go on to bigger and better things is not in question. It's just sad that the confluence of talent couldn't have clicked this time around. Starring Cedric the Entertainer, Vanessa Williams, Steve Harvey, Solange Knowles, Bow Wow, Gabby Soleil and Shannon Elizabeth. Directed by Christopher Erskin. Written by Todd R. Jones & Earl Richey Jones. Produced by Cedric the Entertainer, Paul Hall, Wendy Park and Eric C. Rhone. A Fox Searchlight release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references, crude humor and brief drug material. Running time: 97 min

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