Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
Nate Johnson (Cedric the Entertainer) an insurance agent thinks it would be a great idea to take his estranged wife and three children to his family reunion in Missouri by car from California. Nate's motives are sincere enough: He is separated from his wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) who has custody of teenagers Nikki (Solange Knowles) DJ (Bow Wow) and Destiny (Gabby Soleil) and hopes the road trip will help them bond as a family and with any luck re-ignite that loving feeling with the mother of his children. But everything that can go wrong does even before the trip begins. Nate brings his SUV into the shop to have an 8-track tape player installed in order to listen to his old Motown classics but what he gets is something straight out of MTV's Pimp My Ride although not even West Coast Customs would do something this gaudy. Off they go in their Burberry-outfitted low-rider Lincoln Navigator complete with four TVs and 26-inch Spinners. Vehicle with up-to-the-minute gadgetry notwithstanding the Johnsons encounter every clichéd road trip disaster including running out of gas and needing a pay phone. It's hard to figure out what's more trite--the journey to Missouri or what happens when they actually get there.
Cedric the Entertainer's trademark observational comedy which made him stand out as a cast member of The Steve Harvey Show simply isn't enough to carry an entire film. Cedric is truly the only funny thing Johnson Family Vacation has going for it and he has a few gags that are simply hilarious including a scene in which he bans CDs from artists who have been shot like Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. from being played in the car. Imagine his dismay when his wife points out that also includes Marvin Gaye "who was shot by his daddy--twice." But the comedian's arsenal of jokes--no matter how witty--do not a story make. Speaking of wasted talent the casting of stunning Williams as Nate's wife Dorothy is quite baffling. While Cedric the Entertainer could be married to someone this hot poor Nate probably couldn't. Nonetheless the quick-witted Williams holds her own next to one of the Original Kings of Comedy. Seventeen-year-old Bow Wow has worked hard to prove that he's not just a flash in the pan--and it's worked for the most part. He proved with Like Mike that he can act but the role of DJ here gets buried in this lousy film.
Christopher Erskin who makes his directorial debut here delivers a mess of a movie despite having squeezed out everything he could from his stars. Visually the sets resemble skits on a TV variety show rather than professional feature film sets the worst being the sequences where the family is in the SUV--almost half the entire film. To wit: you see them driving with the same scenery in the background--it's like in the The Flintstones when Fred would drive past the same palm tree next to the same rock house again and again. You can't help but picture the actors sitting in the Lincoln Navigator prop car in front of a large blue screen windows rolled down with a wind machine pointed at them. Matching the abysmal visuals are writers Todd R and Earl Richey Jones' ill-paced script. The film drags as the Johnson family encounters unoriginal setbacks and the end is not even a payoff; it's punishment. See the film doesn't end when family finally reaches Missouri: Moviegoers must the sit through the actual reunion and the Johnson family's Brady Bunch-style musical performance costumes and all. The only moment of brief relief is Steve Harvey's guest appearance as Nate's brother. But wait! It doesn't even end then--we have to follow the family back home to California.