Tiresome-as-ever road trip clichés get an African-American suburbanite makeover in flat-tire of a comedy
When lazy and talentless comedy writers bang their heads together to knock out a road trip movie, they always give away how little they care about cleverness and creativity in the very first reel. If a road trip movie has a good excuse for getting off the beaten track (there's no adventure to be had on the Interstate), chances are you'll have good characters and good laughs.
But if, as in "Johnson Family Vacation," the driver just says "I know a shortcut" (a shortcut from California to Missouri?!), then buckle up -- you're in for a long, laughless ride of tiresome set pieces and second-rate slapstick.
In this case the driver is Nate Johnson (Cedric the Entertainer), an insurance agent and standard sitcom Dumb Dad who drags his estranged family halfway across the country for a family reunion where (feeble gimmick alert!) he's determined to win the "Family of the Year" trophy from the catty clan of his brash, competitive older brother (Steve Harvey).
Do Nate and his family fight? That's a given. Do they run out of gas in the middle of nowhere? Right on cue. Do they pick up a sexy hitchhiker (cue-card bimbo Shannon Elizabeth) over the uncharacteristically meek objections of his wife (Vanessa Williams)? Of course! Do they get pulled over because Nate does something stupid, and then tries to talk his way out of it by being even stupider? Naturally. Do they wreck Nate's brand new Lincoln Navigator, which has to stay in pristine condition (or else!) for some contrived reason? Take a wild guess.
This movie is such a throwaway effort that lethargic first-time director Christopher Erskin doesn't even bother trying to make it look as if the Johnsons are really on the road -- half the movie is shot with the SUV against an obviously blue-screened background.
(It also carries on that exasperating, chauvinistic comedy tradition of fat husbands with skinny, sexy wives -- and even takes this so far as to make a joke of chunky Cedric being horrified at women his own size joining him in a hotel hot tub. Yet, we're supposed to think Cedric and Williams -- a gorgeous former Miss America -- are made for each other.)
A small handful of times, genuine wit stumbles into "Johnson Family Vacation," as when Nate vetoes his son's rap music on the car CD player, throwing Tupac and Biggie discs out the window and declaring that they will not listen to "nobody who's been shot." The boy (played by talented actor/rapper Bow Wow) retaliates by reaching for his dad's music, rolling down his window and chucking a few CDs himself: "Sam Cook...shot! Marvin Gay...shot!"
But 90 percent of the trip to Missouri is telegraphed lowbrow gags (Bow Wow pees in a cup because Dad won't stop the car, then Dad almost drinks it by mistake), ludicrous plot pointers (a billboard in downtown Kansas City reads "Johnson Family Reunion only 200 miles!"), or idiotic contrivances (even through three characters have cell phones, Dad walks for help when they run out of gas).
And it gets only stupider and more creatively bereft once the Johnsons do finally reach the reunion. I don't know which was worse -- the family talent show face-off or the immature father's "You know what I realized today?" moral of the story.
Cedric the Entertainer does have a gift for rip-roaring line delivery no matter how insipid or embarrassing the dialogue, and it gets a workout in "Johnson Family Vacation." But no matter how hard he works, there's just no way around the picture's sorry script.