Johnson Family Vacation (2004) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual references, crude humor, some language, and brief drug material
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: Cedric the Entertainer, Vanessa Williams, Bow Wow, Solange Knowles, Steve Harvey, Gabby Soleil, Shannon Elizabeth, Aloma Wright
Director: Christopher Erskin
Screenplay: Todd R. Jones, Early Richey Jones
If "The Cosby Show" were to have taken a road trip, a la National Lampoon's Vacation, the results might have been something akin to the premise of Johnson Family Vacation. However, JFV isn't as fresh or funny as either of those sources, with a trite formula and antics that will have you thinking that they proceeded to roll film without a script on most days. There's an appealing cast here, though, and if this really were a television show like "Cosby" one would actually be able to overlook the contrived situations and only mildly funny dialogue as typical television fodder. Not surprising, since screenwriting brothers Todd and Earl Richey Jones have only done previous work in television, writing teleplays for shows like the WB's "Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher" and the Fat Albert-ish animated "C-Bear and Jamal". This is their first screenplay to see the big screen, and with first-time director Christopher Erskin at the helm, the amateurishness unfortunately shows all too often.
The main premise is actually very silly, where Nate Johnson (Cedric, Barbershop 2), his separated wife Dorothy (Williams, Shaft), his rapper-wannabe son DJ (Bow Wow, Like Mike), his maturing daughter Nikki (Knowles), and his precocious youngest, Destiny (Soleil, "The Hughleys"), all load up into their pimped-out SUV to travel across several states for a family reunion where Nate's dear old mother will choose which of the off-shoot Johnson family will be declared Family of the Year. Nate really wants to win this time, as his ne'er-do-well brother Mack (Harvey, "The Steve Harvey Show") has been constantly rubbing victory in his face. However, the trip is a distaster at every turn, causing rifts and agitation among the family, and Mom doesn't know that Nate and Dorothy are no longer together, making the chances of winning seem more remote the closer they all get to the event.
Without an interesting plot, the only real reason to watch Johnson Family Vacation's only appeal might be in order to gain a few laughs along the way, appeasing people that expect little more than an amiable time-filler. In this regard, while I can't deny that I did chuckle every now and then at a few of the sillier gags, for the most part, JFV just lacks the necessary juice to qualify as a worthwhile excursion for people with less discriminating tastes. While it is a light and relatively inoffensive vehicle, featuring likeable performers, the cast deserves a better script than this. Erskin's style of direction is to cram as many feel-good R&B songs and gratuitous leg shots of Williams and Knowles (Beyonce's sis), while Cedric and Bow Wow mug for laughs that rarely come. Harvey looks like he could breathe some life into the film, but his character is vastly underwritten and utilized so little, he becomes just another cartoonish creation to try to force laughs.
Cedric may be a funny man on stage, but he has been making some very bad movies, showing that he isn't quite the screen-savvy presence that can carry a bad movie into something more palatable, like Chevy Chase had been able to do when at the peak of his career. The rest of them, save Harvey, are singers and entertainers cast on good looks more than comedic ability, so asking them to make something more out of a thin premise than they do is a losing proposition. In full-length films, charisma can only take one so far in the absence of anything else, and in Johnson Family Vacation, the charm wears off long before they set the rubber to the road.
©2005 Vince Leo