At the beginning of "Johnson Family Vacation," the unfunny stepchild of "National Lampoon's Vacation," a father reminisces: "Back in my day the whole album had to be good."
Well, in my day (which is to say, today), the whole movie has to be good too. Traveling from California to Missouri in a Lincoln Navigator -- the station wagon of the 21st Century -- are Nate (Cedric The Entertainer), his estranged wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams), son D.J. (Bow Wow, no longer little), teenage daughter Nikki (Solange Knowles) and youngest Destiny (Gabby Soleil).
On the way to the Johnson family reunion, road trip hilarity does not ensue.
Problem No. 1: The Johnson kids are lame. D.J., Nikki and Destiny are well-behaved children, a far cry from the unruly kids a story such as this craves. Nikki, the baddest of the bunch, wears short skirts and yammers on the cell phone until her dad tells her to change and hang up, both of which she does immediately. Destiny has an imaginary friend, but unless my mom was just being kind, I think that's a fairly normal kid quirk.
At least there's Bow Wow, who plays the mildly mouthy D.J. with energy and style and has the movie's only funny moment: After Nate throws D.J.'s CDs out of the car window, banning artists who had been shot, D.J. retaliates: "Sam Cooke? Shot. Marvin Gaye? Shot. Al Green?" The family decides that hot grits count and throw out all three.
Problem No. 2: Missed opportunities. Before the trip, Nate's body shop installs a navigational system into the Navigator. (That's the saddest sentence ever written.) But because they are dull, the Johnsons never get lost. It's a built-in gag begging for action, wasted. There's really no reason to introduce the gadget in the first place, so my guess is that all directional dilemmas were deleted in editing. Bad decision.
Later on, the Johnsons get directions to an "authentic" Native American village. Nate is excited to don his feather headdress. This could get funny. Except the Johnsons never go.
Problem No. 3: Happy families don't bring funny. Instead of documenting the comic unraveling of an intact family, writing brothers Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones give us a slightly dysfunctional family (Nate and Dorothy are in the middle of a very friendly trial separation) and brings them closer and closer with each mile until they are the perfect fivesome. Who wants to see that?
Also, the filmmakers are so focused on making sure the audience can relate that they refuse to exaggerate character traits, so Nate is a little stubborn and Dorothy a bit of a nag. Not exactly the recipe for family chaos.
Problem No. 4: Cedric forgot his last name. Cedric The Entertainer, a proven comic commodity, is wasted on this film. His character Nate is supposed to be going through a midlife crisis. His stunning wife moved out of the family house, took his daughters, enrolled in accounting classes and even has a male suitor. So, conceivably, Nate could be angry, lost, lonely or liberated. But in Cedric's hands, he's just a guy whose wife happens to live down the street. "Johnson Family Vacation" is simply a bad trip.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun