Cedric the Entertainer is a funny guy. He added a lot to the original Barbershop, walked away with Barbershop 2 and has enlivened flat-footed movies like Kingdom Come and Serving Sarah. But he’s locked in a losing battle with Johnson Family Vacation, which scores high marks as one of the worst-crafted films I’ve ever encountered.
Sure, this film’s nothing more than an attempt to slap together an African-American National Lampoon’s Vacation (a none too lofty goal), following a bickering family on a cross-country trip. Yet even that doesn’t explain the screwed-up structure of this mess.
Johnson Family Vacation is forever setting up gags and situations and then forgetting about them. This starts early on when Nate Johnson (Cedric) and his son D.J. (Lil’ Bow Wow, now billed simply as Bow Wow, though I think Medium-Sized Bow Wow might be nearer the mark) visit a car lot. D.J. sees something off-camera and says, “That’s Kurupt!” And while I thought this was slang along the lines of calling something “bogus,” it turns out to be a rap group to whom D.J. has submitted a tape. The scenario looks like a build-up to a gag encounter where Dad is forced to pretend he’s his son’s manager, but the encounter never happens. Instead, the movie just wanders off in another direction.
It gets worse still. Later, there’s a carefully established bit where a hitchhiker steals a box of Froot Loops from the family and puts them in her bag — and then nothing related ever happens. Then there’s the setup for a gag involving Nate in a ridiculous headdress on his way to an Indian reservation; again, the sequence just peters out, going nowhere.
The whole film is like this. And to make matters even worse, Vacation can’t make up its mind as to what kind of movie it wants to be, alternating between something like reality (as real as an insurance salesman being able to afford two brand-new houses in an upscale L.A. suburb can be) and a wilder type of comedy where a payphone is located up a pole in the middle of a cornfield.
Apparently aware of the fact that Cedric’s Nate is pretty much a stiff, the movie finally drags in another role for the comedian as his own weird Uncle Earl, who keeps hitting on Mrs. Nate (Vanessa Williams) with convoluted assessments of her physical charms. This might have worked if Uncle Earl wasn’t such an obvious — and inept — clone of Eddie from the Barbershop movies. And all of this is wrapped up in a TV-movie-styled “life lesson” about family bonding and reconciliation.
None of this would matter much if the movie itself was funny; it very rarely is. The gags are obvious and flat. The big laugh at the beginning is when Nate’s SUV — which he took in to have an 8-track installed! — gets the full “gangsta” makeover, with the resulting “hilarity” of Nate’s inability to deal with the vehicle’s elaborate hydraulics. It’s not very funny, but it’s also hard not to wonder when and how Nate seems to have mastered the vehicle when next he gets back in it, having no further difficulties of the jackrabbit kind.
There is one priceless moment in a bizarre sequence where a small alligator winds up in bed with Nate and his wife. The reptile’s presence for all the world appears as a mighty impressive expression of arousal, causing Nate to look straight at the camera in shared disbelief with the audience; sadly, it’s the only such moment in the movie.
What’s especially disheartening is that a shambles like this just oozes contempt for both its performers and its audience — something that’s even more unfunny than the movie itself.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke