Johnson Family Vacation

by D. Bishop
Tuesday Aug 10, 2004
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The Johnson’s Family vacation, starring Cedric the Entertainer, Vanessa Williams, Solange Knowles, L’il Bow Wow and Gabby Soleil as the family reunion-bound Johnson family, is supposed to be a comedy, has all the potential elements of a comedy (an extended car trip, a family reunion, sibling rivalry, a father hopelessly out of touch with his kids), has recognizable comedic talent.... it just doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. Don’t get me wrong... the film does have a few good moments. The extended stretches between these moments however are enough to either lull the viewer to sleep or send him in search of another DVD.

Nate Johnson (Cedric) is a straight-laced, directed insurance executive who has been separated from his wife (Williams) for three months and sharing custody of their three children. The annual Johnson Family Reunion brings the family back together to make the trip east, a move that John also hopes will help him finally acquire the coveted Family of the Year Award which his competitive older brother (Steve Harvey) seems to win every year. Nate is so focused on his schedule, his 8-track tapes, and his way of doing things it becomes easy to see why his wife, who has her own hopes and dreams, felt she had to go her own way and why his kids lack any real respect for him. Despite the problems however, they all pile into Nate’s tricked-out SUV (a mistake at the dealership) and make the trip across four states, suffering the wrath of a truck-driving maniac (Christopher B. Duncan), eluding a disturbed hitchhiker (Shannon Elizabeth), serving a short stint in jail for traffic violations, and finally breaking down just short of the camp grounds and needing the assistance of the perverted Uncle Earl (also played by Cedric) to get to the reunion in time to compete for the family trophy. The trip is a learning experience for Nate, who realizes that a family is not just made up of one person... it involves everyone learning to appreciate working together toward common goals while respecting each member’s individual needs.

As is all too frequent in comedies these days, each character in The Johnson Family Vacation is little more than a cliched caricature that we have seen many times before - the very clueless father, the mother who knows all and is right about everything, the goofball son, the self-absorbed daughter, the sibling with the perfect family, the tough and sassy family matriarch. These characters start out one-dimensionally, and end without having made any progress toward filling out as real people. And worse, the viewer is only minimally encouraged to even care. Nate Johnson isn’t an outright jerk, but he certainly isn’t someone you’d want to be married to either - why should it matter to me whether or not he gets his family back together? There is very little potty humor, which surprised and pleased me, but with a few exceptions (the scenes at the Four Seasonings Hotel, for one), the comedy is bland. The only reason I’d even call some of it comedy is because it wasn’t making me cry, wasn’t scaring me out of my seat, and wasn’t giving me an adrenaline rush. I won’t even get into the completely illogical motivations, the shallow messages or, best of all, the totally unbelievable ending - by the time you get to it you are so numbed to reason that Nate Johnson could probably end up President and it would somehow make sense.

I firmly believe that every film, no matter how disappointing, has an audience, as well as a time and place. I can’t in good conscience recommend this film, but if you have a sudden hankering for a mindless non-offensive semi-humorous flick, then perhaps The Johnson Family Vacation won’t be for you the waste of 96 minutes that it was for me.

Thankfully, the special features make up for the forgetable film just a bit. First, there are two Audio Commentary tracks, one with writers Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones, and the other featuring Cedric the Entertainer, Bow Wow, director Christopher Erskin and producers Eric Rhone and Paul Hall. While occasionally a bit too silly, the latter is the much more entertaining of the two. The Deleted and Extended Scenes include some outtakes, which is something I believe should be mandatory on all comedy DVDs, and some cut material which, while sensibly deleted from the final film, does feature some of the amusing touches that were mostly lacking in the film. A making-of piece called "The Johnson Family Vacation: Max on Set" provides a pleasantly light-hearted view of the actors behind the scenes. There are also two advertisements - one for the film’s soundtrack and one for an upcoming DVD, and finally a very short anti-drugs spot that is something I haven’t seen on DVD’s before but can certainly appreciate.


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