No one from National Lampoon was harmed in the borrowing of their well-worn comedy franchise to concoct “Johnson Family Vacation,” an African-American road trip that mostly squanders some very gifted performers. Guided by a slapdash script, this vehicle for Cedric the Entertainer is tantamount to embarking on a cross-country journey without a map, making the ride predictably uneven. Occasional laughs and a generally pleasant tone should yield modest box office returns, but given the heavyweight talent (no pun intended), this vacation is considerably less than it could or should have been.
In that sense, pic leaves unanswered whether Cedric can actually carry a movie, after shining in his small “Barbershop” role and shorter-form fare — from a Fox sketch comedy show to his too-good-to-zap beer commercials. What little humor the film musters, in fact, is almost wholly attributable to his appeal.
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The all-too-simple premise has Los Angeles resident Nate Johnson (Cedric) corralling his wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) and three kids for a trip home to Missouri. Once there, he intends to vie with ultra-competitive older brother Mack (fellow “The Original Kings of Comedy” alumnus Steve Harvey, in what amounts to an extended cameo) for the “family of the year” trophy — something Nate covets and his sibling regularly pockets.
The big secret is that Nate and Dorothy have separated, though considerably less hidden is the fact that their joint trek will help bring them together, however unconvincingly. As for the kids, rapper Bow Wow doesn’t have to reach much in the role of a wannabe rapper, while Solange Knowles is nearly as dazzling as big sister Beyonce and does little more than smile winningly in her first bigscreen outing.
Both commercial director Christopher Erskin and writers Earl Richey Jones and Todd R. Jones (real-life brothers with various TV credits) are making their feature debuts as well, and the lack of a steadying hand shows. Admittedly episodic by nature, the film nevertheless gives Cedric too little to work with and doesn’t possess a strong enough through-line to completely sell the adventure as a bonding experience.
What’s left to like, then, comes in the form of well-spaced moments. Nate gets stranded in a hot tub, grows tired after running about five feet, and zooms past a nun in need of roadside assistance, only to pick up a comely hitchhiker played by “American Pie” babe Shannon Elizabeth.
Even that latter sequence, however, reveals some of the pic’s miscalculations, as Nate drools over Elizabeth (who has the good sense to realize what she contributes to a marquee) in front of his kids. A second role for Cedric as the lascivious, fast-talking Uncle Earl also falls flat.
Equally unseemly is Nate’s juvenile relationship with his brother as they jockey for their mother’s approval, which should have audience members feeling about as fidgety as the extended family appears to be. The whole scenario seemingly exists for no reason other than to provide an excuse for a high-spirited family song-and-dance number that comes as too little, too late.
Although it’s usually best not to put much stock in production notes, within them Cedric characterizes the movie as being “not too crass or over-the-top, but with a really good energy,” which is generally true. Now, if someone had just remembered to pack the laughs, this might have been a trip worth taking.