Years from now nobody’s going to watch “Easter Sunday” for lessons in how to frame and cut visual comedy, or the right number of dumbstruck OMG! reaction shots (the film’s got a million of ‘em).
And yet, years from now, “Easter Sunday” will still make a lot of people smile. The folks on the screen are the whole show, and this genial showcase for standup comic Jo Koy has the advantage of showing off a wealth of Asian/Pacific American talent, pretty badly undervalued by establishment Hollywood.
The movie was originally slated for an Easter premiere, for obvious reasons; the pandemic release shuffle pushed it back to August. But since this summer’s latest big action film is kind of a drag, a smaller-scale comedy offering a fair number of laughs and sending the audience out with an intergenerational karaoke rendition of “I Gotta Feeling” hits the spot. Even with its misses.
Koy, who is Filipino American, has been mining his extended Filipino family, particularly his needling, guilt-inducing, loving mother, on tour and cable comedy specials for years. “Easter Sunday” expands those routines into a script by Kate Angelo (”The Back-up Plan,” “Sex Tape”) and Ken Cheng (”Sin City Saints”). The Koy character, Joe Valencia, is a medium-successful, perpetually hustling performer based in Los Angeles, best known as a beer spokesman. He’s up for a series regular spot on a network sitcom. Problem: The brass wants him to do the role with a funny accent. How much patronizing crud must an actor eat in this business?
There are other problems in Joe’s life: In between passive-aggressive calls with his agent (played by the film’s director, Jay Chandrasekhar), he scrambles to be a decent single father to his high school age son (Brandon Wardell) while covering the $35k in private schooling. Plus, it’s Easter, which is epically important to Joe’s fractious, boisterous Daly City family in the Bay Area. A feud between his mother (Lydia Gaston) and his Tita Theresa (Tia Carrere) threatens to mess up the weekend. Joe and his son road-trip it up to Daly City to patch things up. This they do, sort of, while running afoul of a gangster or two; a pair of stolen boxing gloves once worn by Manny Pacquiao; and Lou Diamond Phillips as himself.
Some of the writing’s excellent, on point and ruefully funny, as when Joe and his serenely out-of-it cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero) reflect on how much easier it is to please each other’s respective mothers. A formulaic romance for the youngest characters, played by Wardell (a tad old, but whatever) and the terrific Eva Noblezada, actually feels like it matters. Chandrasekhar and editor Steven Sprung don’t do much to flatter the performers or maximize the ensemble vibe, and the action scenes tend to devolve in blurs and noise. But the best scenes, the hang-around segments where we’re just eavesdropping on this or that argument, include a welcome appearance by Tiffany Haddish as a ghosted ex of Joe’s.
In his standup specials, Koy likes his knob to stay at 11. His attack and energy levels feel like early-mid Eddie Murphy (a key influence on Koy’s comedy), though when he’s forcing things, it’s more on the Kevin Hart plane. The all-out performance segments in “Easter Sunday,” when Koy grabs a microphone in church to broker a peace agreement between his mother and aunt, for example, should kill, but they’re the film’s least persuasive sections.
The most effective parts breathe easier, relying on weird little detours and off-kilter running gags allowing Koy and company to, in effect, not act — just be, and create a companionable movie version of an authentically observed family. That’s what makes this ramshackle vehicle run. After all: What is family, any family, but a crisscrossing series of running gags, in every possible key?
“Easter Sunday” — 2.5 stars
Get a roundup of the best events and things to do in South Florida so you can make it an epic weekend.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language/suggestive references)
Running time: 1:36
How to watch: Premieres in theaters Aug. 4.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Big screen or home stream, takeout or dine-in, Tribune writers are here to steer you toward your next great experience. Sign up for your free weekly Eat. Watch. Do. newsletter here.