This is a spoiler-free review.
Love him or hate him, Jo Koy has certainly struck a chord with audiences worldwide due to his culturally rooted and deprecating sense of humor. The punching bag of his jokes? His experiences with his Filipino mother and the baggage that comes with Asian familial traditions. The seemingly bottomless pit of mom jokes in his arsenal has caught the attention of stand-up bars, streaming sites, and even one Steven Spielberg. Yes, that legendary director who conceived Jaws and E.T. called up Jo Koy one day for a pitch to his production company Amblin Entertainment, because he loved Koy’s 2019 Netflix special Comin’ in Hot.
What’s surprising is that Koy’s meeting with Spielberg went so well that his pitch got bought after just the first meeting. It would be a dream for any budding filmmaker to have their pitch approved in their first go, let alone have the opportunity to meet Mr. Spielberg for a potential angel investment. So, the question now is, did this story deserve the unusually swift Hollywood blessing? My answer would be yes, if only for the fact that a film revolving around a Filipino family should have always been an easy pitch to approve due to the rich, colorful, and dense stories that can come out of it.
Though, the more crucial question is, did this story live up to the quality we should have expected for the first ever major Filipino-centric Hollywood film? The answer is an emphatic no. Easter Sunday is a film hung up on the past, using painfully redundant gags that would have flown if it were 2012 and rehashing family reunion plotlines with the sole addition being a Filipino texture pack.
Jo Koy plays a fictionalized version of himself named Joe Valencia, who, in the process of making ends meet in a fast-moving entertainment industry, estranges his son, Joe Jr. (Brandon Wardell), away from him. In an attempt to mend things, he and Jr. travel from Los Angeles to Daly City for Easter Sunday, a holiday event that Joe’s strident and demanding mother, Susan (Lydia Gaston), has been urging him to attend. Of course, holidays in Filipino culture are a Trojan horse for family reunions, so present there are his debt-ridden cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero), his nurse sister Regina (Elena Juatco), and a rotating lineup of titos and titas played by Melody Butiu, Joey Guila, and Rodney To.
Complicating Joe’s peaceful trip is a barrage of problems he must fix. He becomes embroiled in Eugene’s troubles by encountering gangster Dev Deluxe (Asif Ali), forcing him to find a quick way to pay his cousin’s remaining debt. Hijinks ensue, leading to a blockbuster chase scene that ends with a cameo by Tiffany Hadish, who snatches the spotlight from everyone else. Making matters worse is the childish beef between Joe’s mother and Tita Teresa (Tia Carrere) after both start rumor-mongering about each other.
The only bright spot in the holiday is Joe Jr.’s new relationship with Ruth (Eva Noblezada). Though their meet-cute gives off early 2000s stalker vibes, the Tony-nominated actress makes the most of what she’s given. Unsurprisingly, Noblezada supplies the most dynamic performance in the film. There are also some cameos throughout the film, including one that comes as a pleasant surprise and another that barely elicits laughter despite the actor’s abilities.
Director Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers, The Dukes of Hazzard) provides exactly what he’s known for; a substandard comedy made even more substandard by a humorless role he gives himself. Despite the production bursting with Filipino talent, Easter Sunday is unspecific and exerts too much effort in being relatable to a broader audience by stripping Filipino-American culture to its barest parts. Yes, there are empanadas, halo-halo, karaoke parties, balikbayan boxes, and Manny Pacquiao gloves scattered across the film, but they feel more like hollow vessels that any other Asian token can replace. In fact, there’s really no reason why this film is set on Easter Sunday when it could have been any other holiday.
Koy and company may believe that the film’s lack of specificity is its strength, but all it does is robs it of an identity, something which Fil-Ams have been carefully negotiating with in light of their colonial and diasporic background. Chandrasekhar said, “This is an American movie and I’m proud of it,” although maybe the Filipino movie nested inside of it was more promising. As this reviewer succinctly put it, Easter Sunday feels like an audition tape for a sitcom about Jo Koy’s family. And, just like in audition tapes, it plays it way too safe and has the amateur blemishes that should have stayed in the drafts.
Jo Koy’s performative charm — which usually walks the line between endearing and stereotypical — is taken from him since a real person is now playing his mother. The persona that the stand-up comic has built his fortune lovingly mocking has a face now, and it turns out that the idea was funnier than the execution. He can’t rely on the exaggerated play-acting anymore and is forced to bounce off of actors who are only as funny as the script allows. It’s a lot different when he’s alone on stage and can inhabit multiple personas, the added punchline being the dramatic flare he adds to his impersonations.
Even when the film seems to make way for thoughtful discussions about appropriation and fetishization of Asian culture, it pulls back and seems to forget they ever happened. The best comedy films are those that pack an emotional punch from fully-formed characters who finally discover mature epiphanies contrasting with the crude humor that came before. Here, the most poignant revelations are “Don’t be an ungrateful child” and “Recognize the sacrifices your parents made for you.” If only there were more insight into the generational divide and character flaws that made these realizations so profound, then maybe these lessons would not have sounded like they came from a Grade 6 educational program.
In the end, the film’s problems can be chalked up to the heliocentrism of Jo Koy’s character. Everybody wants his attention, guidance, and approval, but he can’t give them all. He’s like a sponge soaking up all of his family’s insecurities, trepidations, and fallibilities. The thing is, Jo Koy isn’t really interesting as a father, or a son, or even a cousin; he’s interesting as a comedian, and that’s not what the film is asking him to do. – Rappler.com
Easter Sunday will open in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, August 31.