Johnson Family Vacation
—About this Film
One of the great African American traditions in America is the Family Reunion. Multiple generations of a family gather from all parts of the nation to come together for a weekend full of celebration and reminiscing. Classic family fables are retold, cousins who played together as children come together to play as adults, old sibling rivalries are revived; but it’s all in the spirit of love.
The centerpiece of this film is the sibling rivalry between our hero, Nate Johnson (Cedric The Entertainer), and his older brother Mack Johnson (Steve Harvey), the reigning champion of the precious Johnson "Family of the Year” trophy. Nate has long coveted this grand trophy. He will stop at nothing to gain the trophy and already has a special place on his mantle reserved for it. As another family reunion comes about, Nate makes it his mission to gain that trophy and win the “Family of the Year” award.
Problem is, his family is in the midst of being torn apart. He is separated from his wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) because he refuses to support her academic pursuits. He feels that she should just be content to stay home and raise their 3 children: 17-year-old Nikki (Solange Knowles), 16-year-old aspiring rap artist DJ (Bow Wow), and young little Destiny (Gabby Soleil). The kids rotate from Mom’s house to Dad’s house, which in a hilarious scene, the audience discovers is only about half a block away!
Nate’s mission - or rather obsession - is to put these family dysfunctions aside for the sake of winning that precious trophy - not to mention impressing his mother, who never approved of Nate’s marriage to Dorothy and would dance for joy at the mere thought of their marriage failing. His solution: they will take a road trip from Los Angeles to his hometown of Caruthersville, Missouri, in an (accidentally) souped-up, tricked-out Lincoln Navigator (options include a voice GPS navigational system, Playstation 2 and DVD in the rear seats, and hydraulics that will make this mega SUV bounce up and down just like the cars in a Snoop Dogg video).
Can the Johnsons survive the trip? Can they survive each other? Can they (and the car) make it to the reunion in one piece?
I like Cedric The Entertainer (performing in his first starring role in this film). He is one of the funniest comedians in entertainment. He has the ability to bring to life the African American experience - our strength, our dignity, and even our dysfunctions - and make us celebrate ourselves, "warts and all." I wish the script had better utilized those gifts and talents. Instead, the film plays out like an even lower budgeted version of a “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Cedric is basically reduced to enduring (and causing) his fair share of Chevy Chase-like chaos and mayhem, all while trying to coax his wife into having “relations” for the first time in 3 months. Keep in mind that this pursuit is between a MARRIED man and his wife. (Proverbs 5:15-20) Who can find any sin in that?
The one positive message that I received from the film speaks to our human condition. I thought about the great efforts that I make to create a positive appearance that will impress people; and how I created this shined and polished public image to hide my private shame. Just as David went through great pains to cover up his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), Nate in this film, and we in real life, go through similar great pains to use our public success to hide our private failures. Many churchgoers use very large and grand public expression of their love for Christ to hide their losing battle with private sin. Many wealthy men use their great financial successes to hide their broken marriages and fractured relationships with their children.
It’s clear in the film that Nate feels extremely guilty for not supporting his wife's educational goals and for not being a good father to his children. In one scene, Nate has to discipline his teenage daughter and she rejects him. Her argument: You can’t just step in and play the "concerned father" role after walking away from my life and my mother’s life. Those words add further weight to Nate’s guilt, causing him to feel much like David in Psalm 38:4 "My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.”
In the end, families would do well to see the film together and discuss it afterwards. It’s hard for fathers, charged to lead their families, to openly express their feelings of guilt and failure. Nate’s secret is indeed found out, but he eventually finds grace and mercy from his wife, children, and even his mother and brother. Hopefully, in the discussions following the film, real-life families will find the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God displayed through each other.
The verdict: grab the wife (or husband) and kids, get a large tub of popcorn and have a good time!