Monday, February 7, 2011

A Decade of Dreck #43: Johnson Family Vacation

Charge Shot!!! is celebrating the end of the decade in the most masochistic way we know how - by watching and writing about the 100 worst movies of the last ten years as defined by film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Click here to see RT's complete list, click here for more information about the Decade of Dreck project, and click here to see all of the movies we've done so far.

A middle class family with two teenage kids goes on a road trip for bonding, a husband and wife's marriage is put to the test, wacky relatives jeopardize the adventure, all while dad tries to keep everyone together.

You may think that I just descried the comedy classic National Lampoon's Vacation, but little do you know that I was in fact summarizing 2004's Johnson Family Vacation. Don't worry, it's an easy mistake to make, considering that they are in fact the same movie.

At this time, I'll go ahead and get the old "You should be able to sue Cedric the Entertainer for false advertising because he is in fact, not entertaining" joke out of the way: You should be able to sue Cedric the Entertainer for false advertising because he is in fact, not entertaining.

Cedric stars as Nate Johnson, father of three (including Lil' Bow Wow and Beyoncé's sister) and not-so-happily married husband of Vanessa Williams. The time has come to load the family into the new car and head to Missouri for a family reunion, but wouldn't you know it? The car has been pimped! Oh no! What's next? Run-ins with oddball locals across the southwestern United States? Oh, really? I never would have guessed. Hopefully, we'll all learn how much we really love each other along the way.

There's nothing particularly offensive of insulting about Johnson Family Vacation; it's just kind of bleh. Maybe if I hadn't the knowledge that a much better movie with almost the exact same plot existed out there, it might be okay. I'm betting that this might explain the logic behind the movie's existence.

There's a fairly valid theory in the discussion of film out there (you know, there) that because there are so few movies starring African-American actors (and there are), that the overall quality of movies targeted towards black audience suffers because it's easier to get a bunch of people to see something they can relate to on even the basest level if it's the only thing out there. Just imagine, a multiplex has twelve screens. Eleven of those are showing movies with a bunch of white people doing white people things. The twelfth has Johnson Family Vacation, a crappy palette-swapped Vacation knockoff, but a black film nonetheless (Killer of Sheep, it ain't). Which do you think most African-Americans are going to see first?

This theory may explain Johnson Family Vacation's existence, but of course it doesn't excuse it. Treading directly over the tracks of Clark Griswold's Truckster, the jokes come out feeling like they have twenty years worth of dust on them. Or maybe this is what growing up feels like. Maybe one day I'll understand all the complaints about the "hippin' and the hoppin' and the bippin' and the boppin'" and how cell phones are annoying things for teenagers to have.

Or maybe these are just softball jokes lobbed at parents to induce the meekest of chuckles so that when they leave the theater, at least they can say "I laughed at that joke about rap music!".

There actually is a pretty funny joke about how Cedric the (so-called) Entertainer doesn't want to listen to Lil' Bow Wow's hip hop CDs because has a rule that they won't play any music performed by people have been shot, such as Biggie and Tupac. Lil' Bow Wow promptly points out that Cedric's favorite singers, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye among them, were also shot. An interesting observation becomes less a commentary on the violence inherent in pop music and more "parents just don't understand".

The film's third act involves a field day/talent show competition between the various branches of the eponymous family for a "Best Family" trophy. Nate and his brood are up against his overachiever older brother Mack (fellow King of Comedy and current self help guru Steve Harvey). This whole segment gave me flashbacks to Cheaper By The Goddamn Dozen 2: They're Probably Mormons and Steve Martin's petty rivalry with Eugene Levy. Seriously, that shit's like 'Nam for me.

Oh, hey! Shannon Elizabeth, the personification of the late 90's/early Aughts for adolescent boys, is in this!

Johnson Family Vacation's crimes lay chiefly with it's general blandness and it's blatant rip-offs of Chevy Chase's treasured gem of a film. If some studio suit out there decided that he could make money by making a Vacation-esque film targeted towards black people, the least he could have done was copied the original a little more.

Interesting note before we go. While the film's plot involves a trek from Los Angeles to Missouri, the poster depicts the destination as being in the vicinity of Sorel-Tracy, Quebec: the Boivin ancestral home. Perhaps I should have been invited to the Johnson Family reunion?

Johnson Family Vacation is ranked #76 on the Rotten Tomatoes Worst 100 list with 6% freshness. Its RT page can be found here.