Following the diminished critical and box office returns of Rough Night, The House, and Baywatch, the raucous, raunchy, and sharply written Girls Trip gives an otherwise humourless summer movie season the comedic kick in the pants it so desperately needs. Unapologetic in its filthy behaviour and relentlessly potty-mouthed characters, Girls Trip is a rarity in its genre: a madcap comedy about a drunken “lost weekend” told from the perspective of four middle-aged black women instead of twentysomethings, teens, or privileged bros. The change in perspective isn’t just admirable from an equity standpoint, but it also allows Girls Trip to mount a familiar sort of story with a fresh set of jokes and gags. It’s a classic engine for a film with all new parts built in around it.
Successful self-help author and rising superstar Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall) is on the brink of landing a multimedia deal that would make her and her retired pro athlete husband (Mike Colter) rich beyond their wildest dreams. Wanting to celebrate her accomplishments, Ryan looks to reunite her college besties – the Flossy Posse – for the first time in five years and bring them with her to New Orleans, where she’ll be signing the lucrative deal and delivering the keynote address at the Essence Festival.
Ryan’s friends are nothing like her. Sasha (Queen Latifah), a former journalism major with a bright future, thanklessly toils as a gossip blogger and finds herself in a large amount of debt. Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) used to be the freaky, fun loving party girl of the bunch, but has settled into a role as a doting, constantly worried single mother of two. Dina (Tiffany Haddish) is the mouthpiece and enforcer of the group, constantly speaking her mind, starting fights, and generally acting like she’s still in high school. They all could use the trip to blow off some steam, but perhaps none more than Ryan, especially after her sisters in crime learn about her husband’s rampant infidelity.
Girls Trip, like most films of this nature, escalates quickly, but the first two acts contain a lot more gut-busting than the slightly more serious and character based finale. By the time the friends arrive at the airport, the gags are already landing so quickly and consistently that director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, Barbershop: The Next Cut) struggles to contain the wealth of charisma and camaraderie of his leads. On a comedic level, Girls Trip’s script, courtesy of Tracy Oliver and Kenya Barnes, is the kind of generous template that makes sure each of the core cast members gets a high spot to shine while acting foolish. Hall slays a scene where a hungover Ryan is forced into doing a cooking demonstration in front of a live audience alongside her husband and the “Instagram ho” that’s trying to steal her man. Smith walks a delicate tightrope as a character who bounces between being motherly and acting nasty, delivering two memorably grotesque gags, both of which are too insane to be spoiled. Latifah gets to play more-or-less the straight-woman here, but she still gets the chance to have sex with an inanimate object while tripping out on absinthe. It’s not highbrow humour, but it’s all done with energy, vigour, and full commitment by the cast.
Then there’s Haddish, who delivers a performance so uninhibited and instinctual that I dare say it should be remembered for Best Supporting Actress consideration at the end of the year. Not only does Haddish’s Dina go from zero to a hundred in the blink of an eye, but it’s almost impossible to tell when the boorish, hard partying woman will snap and try to rush across a room to stab someone with a broken bottle. Haddish’s performance is so confident and well realized that she doesn’t even need funny lines, situations, or even words to get huge laughs. Haddish is so accomplished as a comic talent that she gets a big laugh just by saying “GoGurt” in the middle of a sentence. It’s one of the best comic performances in years, and thankfully it’s in a film worthy of her efforts. It’s a character that could have also overshadowed everyone else involved, but thankfully Haddish’s cast members are given plenty of room to go toe-to-toe with this comic force of nature.
The chemistry between the stars of Girls Trip is spot-on. They’re believable both as friends and friendly rivals, with each member of the crew capable of taking and dishing out abuse on equal levels. Like most comedies, there’s clearly some off-book riffing that’s happening, but each of the cast members keeps their quips in line with their characters’ motivations. It’s not the kind of comedy where people are just saying things that the actors think are funny, but one where jokes are delivered because the characters are comfortable telling these zingers because they’re among friends. Girls Trip doesn’t make the viewer feel like they’re a part of the festivities, but rather as an invested eavesdropper witnessing a whole bunch of crazy shenanigans unfold. It’s inviting and warm because it allows each of the characters stand as individuals instead of just another stock part of a group.
It’s also a film with a lot of subtle things to say about the differences between black and white American culture. Girls Trip functions on a certain intellectual level as a jovial pop-culture critique of an entire genre. It’s not asking why middle-aged black women can’t have a film where they’re allowed to act abhorrently, but why white people seem to have cornered the market on this kind of comedic staple. The jabs are often subtle and off-the-cuff, including many digs at how hard partying white people in films can’t handle their liquor. Most of the film’s cut eyes are directed towards Ryan’s white agent (played hilariously by Kate Walsh), a well-intentioned woman who tries way too hard to sound hip and black, but always comes across as forced and phoney. Girls Trip boldly stakes its claim as a film driven by and made for black women, and while it invites everyone to come along for the ride, it refreshingly never backs down from the stance made in favour of the film’s core demographic, one that has been deprived of films like this for far too long in favour of more whitewashed and safe cinematic fare.
There are points in the first half of Girls Trip where I was laughing for so hard and so long that I know I missed several more punchlines and one-liners that followed what I started chuckling at in the first place. Lee, who still has problems with pacing and framing his films, keeps the energy level high for the first hour of Girls Trip, but he also risks of wearing the audience out when things need to take a turn into slightly more serious territory and Ryan has to start questioning if it’s better to leave her two-timing husband or preserve her squeaky-clean professional image. The pivot between the silliness and seriousness in Girls Trip is jarring, causing the film to stumble and slow down as it enters the home stretch. It’s obvious from the opening introductions that a developing rift between Sasha and Ryan will cause the group dynamic to break down, but Girls Trip isn’t about how original the story is, but how freshly it has been packaged (minus the film’s uneasy reliance on a lot of product placement).
Just as Girls Trip starts to nosedive, the strength of Lee’s material and the talents of his cast right the ship seemingly against all odds. There’s no way that the finale of Girls Trip should work – building to a scene where Ryan delivers a lengthy, heartfelt speech instead of any real comedic blow-off – but the characters and performers have built up so much good will that it feels like a good note to end things. It’s a bit restrained considering how crazy the rest of the film has been, and it could leave some wanting more than what’s ultimately delivered. Thankfully, Girls Trip is strong enough to make one think that the idea of a sequel with these same characters and performers wouldn’t be so bad of an idea. If the sequel is even half as funny as the original, it would still be a very funny movie. It’s also the only comedy this summer that’s inherently re-watchable, which is the highest compliment a film of this nature could have bestowed upon it.
Is Girls Trip essential viewing?
This is the comedy that audiences have been waiting for all summer, and it has the potential to become a beloved classic. It’s a smartly designed crowd pleaser that demands to be watched with an audience.
Girls Trip opens Friday, July 21, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more details.