As the Johnson family rolls across the United States, they wind up bumping into one twist, turn and eccentric character after another, from pesky motel managers to angry cops, from indignant Native Americans to slovenly chefs.
One decision that backfires big-time on Nate is his sudden urge to pick up a sexy young hitchhiker, the alluring Chrishelle, who turns out to be heavily into crafts – witchcraft, that is. Christopher Erskin describes the characters as “having a kind of spiritual Tourette’s syndrome.” He continues: “She’s dealing with the kind of dark forces you do not want to have in the car with you on a family trip. It’s basically the Devil riding with the Johnsons, and she almost manages to unravel the family.”
Chrishelle is played by Shannon Elizabeth, of AMERICAN PIE fame, in one of her most playful roles to date. “We were thrilled to get Shannon,” says producer Paul Hall. “I think her fans are really going to be surprised by this role and she’s wonderful in it. She does her best to disrupt the JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION, but even she can’t quite come between them.”
Finally, the Johnsons make it to the Missouri reunion – but their trials and tribulations are only just beginning. Now Nate is thrust into battle as he faces off in a sibling rivalry rumble with his brother, Mack, who has managed to win the Family of the Year contest for four years straight. Playing Mack Johnson is the popular stand-up comic Steve Harvey, who previously collaborated and toured with Cedric The Entertainer for years on the comedy stage, where they developed a close-knit comic rapport. “Basically, Cedric makes me funnier and I hope I make him funnier,” sums up Harvey.
Says Cedric about reuniting with Harvey: “We used to go on stage together doing freestyles and improvs, so we have an automatic comic chemistry now whenever we meet. I was so happy to have him be part of this film. You know, you really can’t stop Steve. So you either get on and ride the train with him or get out the way! He is just his own ball of energy bursting forth with joke after joke after joke.”
Harvey describes the character of Mack as a man with a typical older brother superiority syndrome. “As Nate’s older brother, I’ve been better than him at everything my entire life,” he explains. “Now, we’re just two adult men fighting like six year-olds.”
For Harvey, part of the fun of playing Mack is doing comedy for a broader audience than his more risqué stand-up routines. “I love that this is a movie for everybody,” he says. “And it was fun for me and Cedric to prove that we can be just as funny without profanity.”
For the rest of the cast and crew, just watching Steve Harvey and Cedric The Entertainer riff off one another was pure pleasure. “When Steve and Cedric were on the set, it was like watching real-life brothers,” says Christopher Erskin. “They know each other so well, and can improvise off each other so brilliantly, and they can take any joke and instantly spin it a different way. Once Nate and Mack start at each other, the scene becomes like a great Ali-Frasier battle of wits.”
Adds producer Paul Hall: “The best thing about Steve and Cedric is the way they push each other to be funnier and funnier. They push each other to places that most likely nobody else could get them to go!”
Erskin gave Cedric The Entertainer and Steve Harvey the leeway to follow their comedic instincts wherever they wanted and just have fun with the roles. This fit in with his whole comedy philosophy – which is that the very best comedy is always made in the moment. Throughout the film, in fact, Erskin encouraged the entire ensemble cast to improvise their own inspired sequences of pandemonium and comedy.
“Comedy has to be spontaneous and what’s brilliant about our cast is that they were just so happy to try anything,” Erskin says. “I would often say to them ‘just surprise me’ and the stuff they came up with was amazing every single time.”