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Johnson Family Vacation

2006-03-30 12:31

There are more movies being made than ever before, which also means there are more light, throwaway comedies. Why do so many of them have to be disappointing?

"Johnson Family Vacation," directed by Christopher Erskin (this is his first feature film), has plenty going for it in its lead actors, Cedric the Entertainer and Vanessa Williams, and Cedric's fellow comic and WB star Steve Harvey shows up in a supporting role that would have been even funnier had it been bigger. Cedric plays Nate Johnson, an insurance guy who is estranged from his knockout of a wife, Dorothy (Williams, who, unfortunately, doesn't have much to do other than look exasperated and indignant). But Nate doesn't want his judgmental family -- including his hilariously competitive brother, Mack, played by Harvey -- to know about his marital troubles. So he and Dorothy pack up their kids (played by Gabby Soleil, the lively, likable Bow Wow and Solange Knowles, sister-of-Beyoncé) and leave their comfy Los Angeles neighborhood in a giant luxury SUV -- one that must be returned to the car dealership after the trip -- for the big Johnson family reuinon in Missouri.

The road-trip setup ignites lots of gags that should be much funnier than they are, as when Dorothy repels Nate's amorous advances in a hotel hot tub and, nastily, removes his trunks and hangs them up out of reach before flouncing off to her room. Before Nate can retrieve them, a group of giggly, curvaceous women slip into the tub beside him. He informs them, nervously, "Ladies, if y'all see a snake, don't worry, he won't bite."

As ridiculous as the line is, this is Cedric the Entertainer -- one of the knockouts of "The Original Kings of Comedy," and the outlandish, blathering old-timer of "Barbershop" and "Barbershop 2" -- we're talking about. Cedric makes even cornball humor feel modern.

In one of the movie's funniest scenes, he and Bow Wow bicker about what music they're going to listen to in the car. Nate informs his son that he will not tolerate the music of any musician who has been shot, tossing the kid's Tupac and Biggie CDs out the window. Bow Wow responds by pulling Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and (by a slight extension of the rules) Al Green out of the CD case and, to Nate's dismay, flinging them onto the highway. The two actors work the exchange like a vaudeville routine, and it works, because each performer takes so much obvious delight in the other's indignation.

Cedric isn't a small guy, but there's something luxuriously silky about him. At one point, when he launches into an impromptu shuffle to a Barry White song, he shows an almost elfin grace reminiscent of another astonishingly delicate dancer, Jackie Gleason. (It will be interesting to see what Cedric comes up with as Ralph Kramden in an upcoming movie version of "The Honeymooners.") Cedric also plays a version of his "Barbershop" character here, a mumbling Methuselah by the name of Uncle Earl, who's good for laughs whenever he appears (particularly when he sidles up to Dorothy, sniffing lasciviously, or informs the family that he's repaired their busted-up vehicle by "running a coat hanger" up the middle).

The direction on "Johnson Family Vacation" is numbingly slack; the synapses between the scenes don't spark effortlessly, as they should, and the whole enterprise feels dragged-down and belabored. Its best moments come toward the end, during the climactic family reunion, when Cedric and Harvey come together as the dueling brothers: They go to town, jabbing at each other in an ever-escalating parade of putdowns (most of which feel improvised rather than scripted) that can't be flattened by awkward direction.

During the talent competition (this is a serious family reunion, which includes a grueling contest for "Family of the Year"), Harvey's family takes the stage to perform a kinetic dance routine, dressed in matching modified-Mao jackets: Cedric, muttering under his breath, refers to Harvey as "Nappy Chan." Later Harvey, with his cartoon-crocodile smile, hugs the garish winner's trophy to his bosom as if he were a starlet with an Oscar.

Harvey and Cedric's scenes together are really just so much horsing around, but they're looser, funnier and more spontaneous than anything else in the movie. They're not enough to save the picture. But they're enough to make you wonder what Cedric and Harvey would come up with if they were left free to cut loose and cut up.

Cedric the Entertainer making the moves on Vanessa Williams in a hot tub? Should be funny -- but like most of this slack comedy, it's not.

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