By the time the Johnsons wind up onstage competing for "best family" honors at the end of "Johnson Family Vacation," the movie has long overstayed its welcome. Cedric the Entertainer's name may be above the title of this boring, mediocre movie, but the family's brand-new, souped-up Lincoln Navigator, with its
Nate and Dorothy Johnson (Cedric and Vanessa Williams) are separated but agree to drive, with their three children, from Los Angeles to Missouri for the Johnson family reunion just so Nate's disapproving mother (Aloma Wright) won't think something is wrong with their marriage.
Cedric is as charming and as easily chagrined as he is in his Bud Light spots. He even gets to reenact one, this time with a flare and a Jacuzzi as props. "Barbershop 2," with its meatier part for Cedric, demonstrated he's a better side order than a meal. In the meantime, we get to see Williams give a less-committed performance than she does in her Radio Shack spots. Odd: She can sell surge protectors and cheap headphones, but she can't make me like a road-trip comedy. (There's more than one shot of her dozing off in bed and in the passenger seat.)
Williams's Dorothy has been studying to become a certified public accountant, a dream that her husband apparently didn't support because he wanted her home. This is one of those iffy attempts at character development that seems ridiculous given the film's casting: The marriage should have ended years ago, as Williams doesn't seem like someone who plays the "yes, dear" game.
On the other hand, Cedric does. Each of Nate's archetypal children has him wrapped around his or her finger. DJ (Bow Wow, who's grown out of the "Lil") wants to be a rapper. Nikki (Solange Knowles, Beyonce's lil' sis) is the boy-crazy skin flasher. The youngest child is named . . . Destiny. And the title of a hit by a similarly named group seems fitting here: "No, No, No." Destiny is played by Gabby Soleil, a tyke of such calculated, child-actor sweetness that the movie could induce an outbreak of cavities. Cedric humors his children, and disappoints us, by not heaving one out of the SUV at each stop.
Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones's script is full of nonevents, such as the family's run-in with the pet alligator of a hitchhiker (Shannon Elizabeth); its attempts at gross-out humor are halfhearted; and the comedy is Teflon -- nothing sticks. A more inspired movie would have allowed Nikki a proper hissy fit after the family's luggage goes flying onto the interstate. But no one seems to notice they have no clean clothes.
"Johnson Family Vacation" has been made not according to whether the Johnsons seem like a family (they don't), but by which of its members you've come to see. It's stretched thin trying to bridge the vast comedy gap between Cedric's adult fans and the girls who've come for Knowles. Add first-timer Christopher Erskin's listless, arrhythmic direction, and the result is a bore.
Like a lot of people, I don't really look forward to my own family reunions, so a movie about people on their way to one should be more resonant than this. But the members of the extended Johnson family don't seem to love one another in any conventional way; they compete in contests and with expensive gifts to prove whose love is greater. In that sense, Nate and his brother Mack (Steve Harvey) are the seeds of an August Wilson play. Otherwise, the movie is blank on the nuances of family. Its sense of materialism is fine, though: When Mack carries a large, flat-screen plasma television into his momma's house, she knows exactly where it goes: on the wall "right between JFK and Jesus."
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Johnson Family Vacation
Directed by: Christopher Erskin
Written by: Todd R. Jones, Earl Richey Jones
Starring: Cedric the Entertainer, Vanessa Williams, BowWow, Solange Knowles, Shannon Elizabeth, Steve Harvey
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 93 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (for sexual references, crude humor, brief drug material.)