Jokes never take off in `Johnson Family Vacation'

April 07, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

There's no better word for Johnson Family Vacation, a comedic road picture in the tradition of National Lampoon's Summer Vacation, than lame. It won't offend your sensibilities, it won't make you laugh until it hurts, it won't make you desperately want to be somewhere else. It just sits there, like a piece of cold fish, waiting for someone to sweep it off the table.

The jokes are lame, and so are the setups, the script and the acting.

The only real surprise in the film is that it stars Cedric the Entertainer, a comic presence capable of things exponentially better than anything on display here (see either Barbershop film for proof). Even he can't make this lackluster material come to life.

Cedric is Nate, old-school father of the Los Angeles-based Johnson clan, a mildly dysfunctional group on its way to a big family reunion in Missouri. Nate and his wife, Dorothy (the lustrous Vanessa L. Williams, also way better than her material), are separated, though still trying to make a go of it. Elder daughter Nikki (Solange Knowles, sister of Beyonce) talks on the phone constantly and wears short skirts. Son D.J. (Bow Wow, at 16 no longer including Lil in his name) likes rap and talks a lot. Younger daughter Destiny (Gabby Soleil) has an imaginary friend.

If the comic possibilities of this group seem less than overwhelming, that's part of the problem. The Johnsons, save for some forced bumbling on dad's part, seem like a fairly low-key group. The friction between them is minor, leaving little opportunity for escalating farce or outlandish shenanigans.

The movie follows them on their road trip, and tries to mine laughs from staid old dad, who buys himself a solid, all-American car for the journey, but ends up behind the wheel of a souped-up SUV with all sorts of hi-tech, hi-gloss bells and whistles. Tries to mine laughs, that is, until about 20 minutes into the movie, when the script loses interest and moves onto other sources of humor - all of which are abandoned before any real comedy is allowed to happen.

Along their way, the Johnsons pick up a beautiful hitchhiker (Shannon Elizabeth) for reasons that have to do with either scenery or laughter. But Elizabeth isn't onscreen enough to provide the former, and outside of a brief bit in which she shares the screen with a lizard, doesn't promote much of the latter. The movie is like that, introducing things that threaten to turn funny (like a planned trip to an "authentic" Indian village), then moving on before prompting anything more than a titter.

Things don't get any funnier at the big reunion, where Nate goes up against his show-off big brother (Steve Harvey) in vying for the affections of their mom.

There's one good joke, in which Nate, doing what he can to keep rap off the car's CD player, orders that no one plays any music by singers who have been shot. He smiles, knowing that means no Tupac or Notorious B.I.G., but gets flustered when it's pointed out that Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye should be likewise prohibited.

Now that's the kind of subversive humor that could have lifted Johnson Family Vacation above the proudly tepid. Too bad that, in this movie, it dies of loneliness.

Johnson Family Vacation

Starring Cedric the Entertainer, Vanessa L. Williams, Steve Harvey

Directed by Christopher Erskin

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rated PG-13 (some sexual references, crude humor and brief drug material)

Time 96 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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