Starring: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tiffany Haddish
Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Running Time: 122 mins
Synopsis: Once the closest of High School friends, the Flossy Posse (as they self-dub themselves), have now drifted apart. A trip to New Orleans to promote Ryan’s (Hall) new business venture gives them an opportunity to meet again and rekindle their sisterly bond. A mixture of crazy parties, wild antics and vulnerable moments awaits them.
You do not have to be a world-renowned critic or have a deep filmic knowledge to see that the mainstream R-rated comedy rarely alters the conventions that have proved mightily successful over the last few years. The form became crystallised with The Hangover back in 2009, and then subsequently followed by repeated imitators, with even that films’ sequels basically remaking the original again. Usually the plot surrounds old friends, a trip of some sorts (whether for the entire film or at least parts of), crazy antics that escalate as events progress and notably one character that is of a particular intense insanity. It also usually helps that some or even all are dealing with some sort of personal battle that gradually builds until a central release which generally results in the group falling out. The reason I want to caption all this is that despite the dulling feeling of deja vu these films instil, if done right and with the right balance of laughs/heart then cliches fall to the wayside.
Girls Trip unexpectedly nails all these beats with zest, heart and a huge dollop of laughs. The reason I say unexpectedly is the trailers leading up to the release really did nothing for me. A couple of jokes aside, it felt like lazy filmmaking, the cynic inside me thinking this is just The Hangover only this time it’s women of colour. The hollow Hollywood machine at work once more, taking what was loved and attaching it to another demographic! Director Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother) and writers Kenya Barris & Tracy Oliver are cleverer than mere cogs in the machine. Crafting their story around four characters that not only share a believable bond but ones that feel real.
It certainly helps that Lee cast some truly talented women to make up this Trip. Known once as the Flossy Posse, the foursome spent most of their younger years together partying and supporting each other, as seen in a rather clunky opening montage that feels rushed despite the generous 2 hr running time. But as with all close knit friends maturity and the pressures of adulthood sent them out their separate ways. Owing to her hugely successful career as a self-help novelist and TV personality Ryan bids to get them back together for a weekend sojourn in New Orleans as she prepares to sign a new lucrative business deal. Regina Hall gets what could be argued the more central role as Ryan. As with these films she is also the straight-laced, least funny one, but one the film marries its effective emotional core to. The centre of attention publicly and within the friendship group, it isn’t hard to see that inner tensions arise within this dynamic. What is great is how subtly they are hinted at, an exhausted glance or random comment suggesting it way before the inevitable eruption. Primary facilitator of said tension is Queen Latifah’s Sasha.
They shared the tightest bond of the four, both studying journalism and planning to work together. Ryan’s dovetail into a new media arena and her marriage to Mike Colter’s Stewart left Sasha out in the cold, forced to tread the gutter as a tabloid blogger. Latifah plays it warm and nuanced, her integrity at odds with the need to pay the bills and subtly coming out of her in frustrated internal battles. Colter is also solid here, building on his great work in Luke Cage, as a bit of a douche. His and Ryan’s marriage becoming a key factor within the plot and taking unexpected directions, giving rise to the films later talk of independence and female empowerment. The film perhaps drags this plot line out a little too long, resulting in us losing some semblance of sympathy for Ryan’s predicament. In an rewarding earnest finale she of course makes a bold decision, gifting us an inspiring dangerously close to saccharine speech which moves thanks to the commitment of its performers and the refreshing lack of cynicism.
Before you ask, yes there are two other members of this group, yet the film saves the meatier stuff for the two straighter characters, leaving Smith and Haddish to give us the funny. Pinkett-Smith is a delight in that respect. Normally she is a flat performer with the tendency to wildly overplay things, but here she is clearly having a ball. As divorcee Lisa, Smith suffers frequent teases from the others about her motherly frumpiness and need to just get her leg over. If all her tensions and lack of dating skills are perhaps solved a little too quickly, it is backed up by her keen comedic timing and genuine audience affection for her character.
The real standout is Tiffany Haddish, a relatively new face on the scene, who gives a barnstormingly dominating performance as the raucous Dina. Hyper-verbal, crass and brutally honest, she crackles with energy and vitality gifting all of her scenes with huge laughs. There isn’t as much depth to her compared with her fellow Posse members, but the love she feels towards them and her intense loyalty is clear to see. Like the rest of them she is sketched out with a clear outline, with dimensions, frailties and a graspable bond to her fellow girlfriends. You know a film has done right by its characters when you’d happily want to spend more time with them.
All of this would be for nought if the comedy wasn’t up to scratch, but Girls Trip is hands down the funniest film of the year. Consistent and naturally built through the story, with a number of truly brilliant set-pieces. Even the token scene featuring the gang unknowingly taking a highly powerful drug (this time in the form of a hallucinogenic Absinthe drink) and proceeding to go to a public place, this time a vibrant nightclub, is graced with some genius cutaways as we realise what they believe is happening is very very different to reality. Amazingly outside of one key scene none of these big moments has been spoiled in the trailer, a usual problem these films face, helping to give the film a sense of unpredictability.
Girls Trip does run far too long, once more becoming one of those dreaded 2 hr comedies which is a runtime usually only favoured by Judd Apatow, but thanks to the liberal spreading of hilarious moments it feels less malevolent than his overbearing excesses. It also features a truly awful score, and while comedies aren’t known for their musical backgrounds, this one feels particularly egregious. Cheesily peppy and crudely basic, it is seemingly designed to listlessly caption exactly what is happening on screen. A jaunty moment gets jaunty music! Luckily you’ll be laughing too much to care and most won’t even notice it. I’m nitpicking here as Girls Trip just works, its familiar beats and lack of narrative surprises meaning nothing in the face of sheer hilarity and a group of characters finely drawn. Their bond believable, playful and tinged with history. This is one trip well worth taking.
Verdict: Girls Trip rises above genre cliches with big laughs, rich characters and a heartwarming message. It certainly helps that it is centred by four terrific performances, with Haddish set for immediate stardom.