Your milage may vary, but this has been one of the best summers at the movies in recent memory. Baby Driver. Dunkirk. The Big Sick. Wonder Woman. War for the Planet of the Apes. Spider-Man: Homecoming. And today, Girls Trip, the new ensemble comedy from Malcom D. Lee, the director of Undercover Brother, and written by Kendra Barris, showrunner of ABC’s Black-ish, has come along to be the biggest damn surprise of the summer.
Yeah, you heard me. It’s a remarkably funny film, even if it adheres to the studio comedy formula a little too much, and it features a star-making turn from Tiffany Haddish. Out today (July 21), you should go see this instead of Valerian. That’s not me begging you not to see Valerian, but it’s also a ringing endorsement of this movie’s earnest likeability.
Drift. It happens to every friend group after college ends, and despite everybody’s good intentions, you’re going to inevitably lose contact and see each other less and less. This is the predicament that four college friends have after their graduation from Howard. The defacto lead of the group, Ryan (Regina Hall) goes on to become a famous self-help guru with a ex-NFLer for a husband (Mike Colter). Party-focused Dina (Tiffany Haddish) settles down into a boring office job and is looking to get back out there and get crazy. Lisa (Jada Pinkett-Smith) has become a boring mom of two, and lives at home with her mother while she pays the bills at a nursing job. Journalist Sasha (an underutilized Queen Latifah) has become a gossip blogger so that she can pay the bills, and has driven a wedge between her and Ryan in the process. Anyways, realizing that they’ve been apart for something like five years at the start of the film, Ryan gets all the girls together to go to New Orleans for the annual Essence Music Festival, where she’s due to be the keynote speaker. And, it being New Orleans, everybody gets into some raunchy shit like they’re right back in college, with all the drinking and drug abuse that goes along with it. But, early on in the conference, Ryan gets info that suggests her husband might be cheating on her, and shit goes down. What follows features creatively-used grapefruit, piss geysers, lamp-humping, and messages about the power of sisterhood in the face of toxic men.
Though everybody in the cast is uniformly pretty good, Haddish is, to put it mildly, utterly fucking brilliant here. Sure, some might accuse her of playing same kind of “unhinged friend” role that people like Zach Galifianakis and Melissa McCarthy have received so much praise for in their respective films, but Haddish is different. She’s dynamic and not reactionary, and though she’s occasionally set up for laughs by doing something exaggeratedly silly or dumb or weird, she’s eminently empathetic and significantly closer to us than those examples of freak comic relief. Roughly 90 percent of her humor comes from her overreactions to very relatable things (who hasn’t wanted to smash a bottle over the head of their best friend’s cheating husband?) and her glee at being unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. She is the core nexus for making this film work, and the people who get to play off her are made brilliantly funny in her presence. And unlike Galifianakis and McCarthy, it’s easy to see her transitioning into leading her own film without losing any of that charm. It’s a star-making role for her and, God willing, we’ll see her at the center of a new film sooner rather than later.
It’s also interesting to see how well the same notes play here — you have definitely seen this movie before, but you’ve never seen it as fresh or as funny as this in recent years. And part of that has to do with the raunch (there are jokes so wonderfully dirty in this film that it’s hard to talk about them without spoiling the fun of them), but a lot of it has to do with the heart, and with the specific nature of the empowerment in this film. Most ensemble comedy in the past few years has centered itself around weddings — look at the Hangover films or Bridesmaids for two perfectly solid examples — and yet Girls Trip doesn’t really want a part in any of that. It wants to be a vehicle for self-actualization for its leads, by letting them live out their fantasies; Latifah rediscovers her morals, Smith gets her groove back, Haddish gets to be the over-sized personality that she is, and Hall’s given the chance to find love again free of the concerns of her job. There’s an extra element of fulfillment that happens in the plot, and it’s why the cliche here doesn’t bother so much; it doesn’t totally feel too neat or superficial. And it helps that all the characters are earnestly portrayed and are never totally the butt of any of the jokes. You’re laughing with them, not at them, and it’s nice to feel that difference while you’re watching it.
If there’s a drawback, it’s that Girls Trip is waaaaay too long — it’s a full 15 minutes longer than Dunkirk — and occasionally it gets bogged down by studio comedy excess. There are some set-pieces that, while funny, ultimately act as raunch detours more than essential humor, chief among them a stop at a scuzzy motel that the girls are forced to stay in at one point that provides a solid shock to the audience but could have been totally excised. Yet there’s so much good on display here and such a talented cast working with the material that even the world’s most overused ensemble comedy device of all time — the hallucination sequence brought on by someone in the group spiking some drinks — is so funny it’ll have you rolling in the aisles.
And that’s what’s so great about Lee’s film: It’s a celebration of these women as much as it is a celebration of the kind of risque fun one can get into in a town like New Orleans. And it’s a potent and beautiful display of sisterhood that’s rare enough in modern cinema.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.