½*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C+
starring Cedric the Entertainer, Bow Wow, Vanessa Williams, Shannon Elizabeth
screenplay by Todd R. Jones & Earl Richey Jones
directed by Christopher Erskin
by Bill Chambers Big fan of National Lampoon's Vacation that I am, I was actually intrigued by the prospect of its central characters undergoing a racial inversion. On their trip to a mecca of family fun known as Wally World, the Caucasian Griswolds left their suburban cocoon only to discover how socially ill-equipped they were for the rest of an increasingly stratified America--an apologue in the vein of The Wizard of Oz that's more than un-PC: it's anthropological; a black retread hewed to its line has the potential to be far more applicable to the African-American experience than, say, The Wiz. Unfortunately, while National Lampoon's Vacation was scripted by John Hughes, the Reagan era's premier commentator on class relations, the creators of something called "C-Bear and Jamal" wrote Johnson Family Vacation. Maybe their lack of pedigree is irrelevant, but so is the film, which we can only generously call a pale imitation of National Lampoon's Vacation. After the opening credits, I wished the movie had had the wit to rib its derivative genesis with a parody of National Lampoon's Vacation's signature song ("Ease on Down the Holiday Road"--isn't it obvious?). By the end of the movie, I wished it had wit.
Like National Lampoon's Vacation, Johnson Family Vacation begins at a car dealership, where Nate Johnson (the innately likable Cedric the Entertainer) and son D.J. (Bow Wow) are waiting on the automobile that will transport Nate's brood, including estranged wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) and their cipher daughters Nikki (Solange Knowles) and Destiny (Gabby Soleil), from Los Angeles to a reunion in Caruthersville, MO. Nate has special-ordered an eight-track for his Lincoln Navigator, and in the first of many aggressive displays of contempt for sentient viewers, it turns out the order was misinterpreted and his ride has been festooned with various Crenshaw trappings that are reversible so long as he eventually returns the SUV to the lot in one piece. The Navigator is, of course, a jalopy by the end of Johnson Family Vacation, but unlike the Griswolds' station wagon, its deterioration isn't a gesture symbolic of crumbling solidarity--rather, it's the motivating circumstance for Cedric the Entertainer's other role in the film as gremlin handyman Uncle Earl.
In fact, discussions about the picture in terms of race are limited to the convention of black comics playing more than one part in their starring vehicles and a scene in which Nate and D.J. settle an argument over suitable driving music by vetoing any performer who died of a gunshot wound. While the former seems an extension of the tradition in ethnic stand-up to adopt multiple personalities over the course of a routine, the results so often veer towards minstrelsy (Uncle Earl has two character traits: he's lewd and he's incompetent) that you wonder if a white executive is typically the loudest champion of the practice. As for that passage concerning the not-dissimilar deaths of Marvin Gaye and Biggie Smalls, or Sam Cooke and Tupac Shakur, it's stung with melancholy; by lamenting a common tragedy of black entertainment, the movie earns some impunity for otherwise burying its head in the sand. That being said, the ultimate failing of Johnson Family Vacation is not that it casually stars people of colour, something that shouldn't still be a newsflash, but that it mooches off the legacy of one of the most provocative comedies ever made in as completely chickenshit and criminally unfunny a way as possible.
Fox releases Johnson Family Vacation on a DVD-10 containing both 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen presentations on opposite sides of the platter. The film was shot in Super35, and the basic difference between the two versions is that the widescreen edition masks off a lot of superfluous legroom. Yet again we have a film that doesn't deserve to look as impeccable as it does here--barring some minor edge-enhancement, the image is certainly easier on the eyes than Johnson Family Vacation is on the senses. A hip-hop soundtrack contributes a spirited LFE channel to the disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, though the rear discretes remain dormant for much of the film's running time. Two feature-length commentaries supplement the picture, the first teaming Cedric the Entertainer with debuting director Christopher Erskin, producers Eric Rhone and Paul Hall, and Bow Wow (recorded separately and spliced in to fill conversational lulls), the second pairing sibling screenwriters Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones. Erskin is so saturnine that he tends to stun his yak-mates into silence, as when he dryly observes that "there's something about fart and pee jokes that just have 12-, 13-year-olds cracking up." After revealing that the Johnsons' destination was changed from Texas to Cedric's home state of Missouri, the Joneses settle into a groove of narrating the on-screen action.
Also on board are eighteen deleted (mostly extended) scenes in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen with the mattes set high. There's precisely one item of interest among this 24-minute helping of table scraps, a gutsy sequence in which the Johnsons are mistaken for looters in a "redneck" variety store and nearly blown away by the proprietor. Erskin explains in his optional commentary for this bit that audiences didn't like seeing the family in jeopardy, hence it was axed before the ink on the NRG surveys had dried. And therein lies the fallacy of the test screening: I didn't "like" seeing Michael kill Fredo in The Godfather Part II, but if drama is able to provoke a human reaction, that means it's working, not that it needs anesthetizing. They have a saying in the Middle East (and Disney sci-fi), "All sunshine breeds a desert," and I believe that's true of movies, which are fuelled by conflict. (Look at it this way: with grosses adjusted for inflation, Johnson Family Vacation took in $31,000,000 compared to the rabble-rousing National Lampoon's Vacation's haul of $117,000,000.)
Michael Strout's "Johnson Family Vacation: Max on Set" (credited title: "Hittin' the Road with the Johnsons: The Making of Johnson Family Vacation") is a 13-minute infomercial highlighted by the arrogant insights of creepy Steve Harvey, whose performance as Nate's brother is among the most hostile ever committed to celluloid. "The writing could be great [but] you've gotta give a comedian freedom to show you what's really funny," Harvey says--now if only someone would show Harvey. An "Inside Look" at Queen Latifah's unlikely remake of the French actioner Taxi, the trailer for Bill Cosby, Himself, a soundtrack spot for Johnson Family Vacation, and "A Special Message" preaching against smoking weed round out the disc. Originally published: August 4, 2004.