With its road trip misadventures, "Johnson Family Vacation" is no groundbreaker, but it's an easygoing, earthy comedy that's a good showcase for the robust comic gifts of Cedric the Entertainer, abetted by fellow King of Comedy Steve Harvey and by glamorous and witty Vanessa Williams. Also on board for the fun are rapper Bow Wow as Cedric's irrepressible son and Shannon Elizabeth as a mischief-making hitchhiker.
Cedric's Nate Johnson is a prosperous Angeleno whose success has made him square. His autocratic, old-fashioned insistence that his wife, Dorothy (Williams), drop her CPA studies and concentrate solely on their three children has resulted in a separation of sorts, and she's spent the last three months preparing for her exams in a residence on the same street as the family home. Living with their mother are daughters Niki (Solange Knowles), a boy-crazy teen, and lively little Destiny (Gabby Soleil). Staying with Dad is D.J. (Bow Wow), who wants to be a hip-hop artist while his father would rather he pursue a career in law or medicine.
As fractured as the family seems they pull together for a trip to Missouri for the annual Johnson family reunion, presided over by Nate's formidable matriarch of a mother (Aloma Wright), who for no apparent reason has always disapproved of Dorothy. The highlight of the reunion is a series of contests to determine the Johnson Family of the Year, of which Nate's older brother, Mack (Harvey), and his brood are the perennial winners. He's a smarmy kiss-up to their mother and is always demeaning his brother, whom he calls, among many other insults, "Mama's little mistake."
At least the Johnsons will be making the trip in style in a new Lincoln Navigator tricked-out by the legendary 310 Motoring — somewhat beyond Nate's conservative tastes — but he's disappointed that they've forgotten the one touch he really wanted: an old 8-track stereo. Writers Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones and director Christopher Erskin have been reasonably inventive at keeping amusing things happening to the Johnsons at a brisk pace. The encounter with voodoo hippie Elizabeth has pretty funny consequences, and Cedric has a second role as Nate's Uncle Earl, a randy and hopelessly inept auto mechanic. In good form, Cedric locks horns with fellow travelers, the law, his own relatives and various others.
Although the entire cast gets into the high spirits of the occasion, Vanessa Williams deserves special credit. Dorothy is a supporting role, but with her beauty and talent, Williams brings to it a star quality and lends the role dimension as well. Her Dorothy asserts her right to pursue her career goals and insists to her close-minded husband that she can handle her responsibilities as wife and mother as well, yet at the same time she can be a loyal good sport with a sense of humor. The film allows Williams a limited opportunity to show off her singing, dancing and choreographing skills, but in bringing so much to "Johnson Family Vacation," she also calls attention to the fact that, while she has forged a busy career on stage and TV as well as the screen, the movies have yet to showcase her talents fully.
'Johnson Family Vacation'MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual references, crude humor and brief drug material.Times guidelines: Some parents may consider the film's sexual innuendo and humor too raunchy for family entertainment.Cedric the Entertainer...Nate JohnsonVanessa Williams...Dorothy JohnsonSteve Harvey...Mack JohnsonBow Wow...D.J. JohnsonShannon Elizabeth...Chiselle Rene BabineauA Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation of a Hallway Pictures/A Bird and A Bear Entertainment production. Director Christopher Erskin. Producers Paul Hall, Eric C. Rhone, Cedric the Entertainer, Wendy Park. Executive producer Andrew Sugarman. Cinematographer Shawn Maurer. Editor John Carter. Music Richard Gibbs. Costumes Dana M. Campbell. Production designer Keith Brian Burns. Art director Liba Daniels. Set decorator Ernie Bishop. Set designer William J. Law III.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times