By Scott Cole
* (1 star out of 5)
Director: Jay Chandrasekhar
Starring: Jo Koy, Eugene Cordero, Tia Carrere, Brandon Wardell, Tiffany Haddish
I’m having a certain battle of conscience over writing this review of the new comedy Easter Sunday. It is assuredly a laughless and tired comedy, but to criticize it feels akin to kicking a puppy. The film doesn’t really mean any harm. More importantly, Filipino representation, not to mention Asian representation in general, has been severely lacking in American movie theaters over the years. I just wish this large and talented Filipino cast could have been utilized in a less amateurish and dead-on-arrival family comedy.
Easter Sunday has been conceived from the stand-up comedy of Jo Koy, a genuinely funny comic who infuses his specials with stories of growing up with a very strict Filipino mother and the rituals that come with that upbringing. Steven Spielberg caught one of his stand-up specials on television, wouldn’t stop raving about it, and set out with Koy to develop this film about his life and very particular Filipino family. Spielberg’s studio Dreamworks admirably teamed with Koy to make sure the film got a theatrical release as opposed to streaming since representation on the big screen absolutely matters. Why in the world this Easter story is being released in August, I couldn’t tell you.
In the film, Koy plays Joe Valencia, a struggling Los Angeles comedian who has a lot on his plate. He shares custody of his son Junior (Brandon Wardell) who is struggling with his grades and giving his Dad the customary teenage cold shoulder. He is also testing for a role in a television pilot where he is clearly being misused and underappreciated. A very early audition scene where Joe is asked to pour on more of the Filipino accent has the true ring of a personal experience Koy put into the film and suggests a level of incisiveness that the rest of the film abandons. Finally and most importantly for the film, Joe and his son’s presence are being demanded upstate in Daly City for Easter Sunday with his extended and quirky family.
Almost all of these early set-up scenes have an awkward, clunky quality that makes the film feel unfinished. There is a rushed feeling to the movie almost like they did very few takes for every scene. The director Jay Chandrasekhar has worked a lot in comedic television and that sense is felt very strongly here. It often feels and looks like a bad sitcom. Certain scenes just sort of drag on with no real direction or purpose; others simply just end awkwardly like they weren’t sure how to put a button on or tie the threads up.
I wish I could report that things get better once Joe and Junior get home for the family gathering but it is not to be. After we meet all of the eccentric family players, the focus shifts intensely to Joe’s cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero) and becomes a standard bad gangster plot where Joe has to help Eugene out of a jam because he owes a lot of money to the wrong guys. This subplot goes on far too long and leads to one of the worst directed car chases I can remember, and one of the worst cameos I can remember by Lou Diamond Phillips playing himself. Insanely, his part basically just consists of Lou and some other characters simply naming popular films he was in at the height of his stardom (La Bamba, Young Guns I & II, and more).
One of Joe’s assignments while home is to mend a rift between his mother (Lydia Gaston) and his Aunt Teresa, who is played by Tia Carrere. Seeing Carrere again after a long time was a blast, but it also comes at a heavy price for Easter Sunday. For me, her every appearance on screen just reminded me of how good she can be when used in a great comedy like Wayne’s World (1992). She still has the timing, but needs an inspired script that isn’t just going through the motions. Tiffany Haddish also appears in a brief role, but is likewise given nothing particularly funny to say or do, thus she has to rely on her natural charm to get out of her scenes alive.
Easter Sunday was a movie I was truly rooting for before it started. I will say that the screenplay by Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo does manage to pull off a rather nice and tender moment near the end of the film. But that scene is earnest and not at all comedic, and whenever Easter Sunday tries to be funny it seems to just dig its own grave deeper and deeper. I know that Jo Koy is a funny man, and I hope he takes another shot at bringing his Filipino heritage and culture to films again. Perhaps lean into the sincere heart of the few moments that work here and chuck the tired sitcom stuff out the window next time.