Brand new 17-year-old bride Solange Knowles plays Nikki, willful adolescent daughter of Nate Johnson (Cedric the Entertainer). Her costumes are fashionably skimpy and her cell phone seems attached to her face. When Nikki makes a cute joke comparing her navel to that of Solange’s famous older sister, you get a sense of how she’s come to this place, that is, in a terrible road trip movie. She’s playing little Janet to Beyoncé’s long-ago Michael.
Perhaps, some day, this dicey strategy will pay off. For now, however, Solange’s appearance in Johnson Family Vacation looks a little pathetic. She’s hardly alone in this: everyone who shows up looks that way. You might wonder if anyone read the script — attributed to Todd Jones and Earl Richey Jones — before signing a contract, but within 10 minutes, it’s clear that there was no script, only a series of scenes strung together in random-seeming order.
And so, Nate initiates the action by announcing that the family is headed for a road trip to a Reunion in Missouri. This despite the fact that he’s not even living with his estranged wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams), who has struck out on her own, studying for a career in accounting that he resents. Nikki has a couple of siblings, too, also living with mom, wannabe rapper brother DJ (Bow Wow), and baby sis Destiny (Gabby Soleil, whose character name may be another joke at Beyoncé’s expense, but you’ll never know).
Everyone is unhappy at the prospect of the drive from L.A., as it entails numerous days stuffed in Nate’s newly outfitted (and Burberry-upholstered) SUV, complete with low-rider hydraulics and spinning rims. Everyone, that is, except Nate, who blithely imagines it will be a bonding experience. And if not that, a way for him to win the prize he so desperately covets, the Best Family Prize, handed out by his surly mama, who has never believed that his marriage to Dorothy would last (though it has, at least 17 years). His chief competition is his brother Mack (Steve Harvey), who takes the whole contest business a little too seriously.
Christopher Erskin’s film proceeds as if by accident, a pile-up of driving mishaps, fart gags, sexual innuendoes, Duel-style threats from a truck, and naked Cedric jokes. Along the way, they pause at a rest stop in search of “real” Indian experience (some childhood memory of Nate’s long faded), but find only a slick hotel and a “native” bellboy dressed in animal skins, who offers directions to a nearby tribal site and makes googly eyes at Nikki in front of her dad. During another stop, Dorothy punishes Nate for his general bad behavior and selfishness by leaving him naked in the hot tub, where he’s joined by a crew of Cedric-sized ladies: they coo and prattle, and he looks horrified. By the time he’s trying to sneak past the hotel clerk to reach his room, Dorothy is suddenly falling back in love with her man, seeing his earnest romanticism, in that he’s left a roadside flare sizzling in their room, in lieu of a candle. (Let’s just say that logic is not this movie’s strong suit.)
Among their more audacious episodes is Nate’s decision to pick up flaky hitchhiker Chrishelle (Shannon Elizabeth) (this instead of the nun who appears hitchhiking just before, because nuns do a lot of hitchhiking, after all). Strange in imprecise ways, Chrishelle is visibly oversexed, dishonest, fond of Fruit Loops, and happy to take advantage of her new friends’ generosity. She also has with her a baby alligator that remains unseen until it provides a hotel-room scare for the family, that is, more opportunity for bonding over disaster.
By the time they reach the Reunion, the Johnsons are apparently feeling ready to compete for the prize Nate so covets — mainly through a montage of eating, high-fiving, and sack racing. The film has long since lost any semblance of narrative order and your interest, and so the incoherence in these final 15 minutes only feels like more of the same. Of all the annoyances provided by Johnson Family Vacation, the most egregious may be the waste of on-screen talent: Exhibit A: the final competition, where Vanessa Williams sings backup for Cedric and Bow Wow. You’d like to imagine that if this script had been available to read ahead of time, Williams, Cedric, Bow Wow, and Knowles would have all said no.