by David Rooney
Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah play college friends reuniting for a New Orleans weekend during the Essence Festival in Malcolm D. Lee’s sisterhood celebration.
Rated R; 122 minutes
Opens July 21, 2017
It’s barely been a month since the joyless “Rough Night” came and went in a blur of indifference, and this new comedy on paper could almost be the same movie — only with black sorority sisters and no corpse to dampen the weekend getaway. The difference is that Girls Trip actually delivers on its promise of a liberating good time, thanks in large part to the spirited characterizations and believable chemistry of its four immensely appealing leads. The progression from raunchy, raucous laughs into dramatic conflict and then out the other side into the uplifting empowerment of sisterhood and self-worth isn’t entirely seamless, but there’s too much dizzy pleasure here to get hung up on the flaws.
All that should spell “sweet summertime hit” for Universal, especially with women, while confirming Malcolm D. Lee as a go-to director for high-gloss entertainment built around successful, sexy African-American characters. In the Best Man movies, he explored how four long-time guy friends navigated various rivalries and romances, their bonds outlasting their frictions. Working from a script by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, Lee mines similar territory with the ladies this time, and again, his biggest assets are strong casting and genuine affection for his characters.
The movie opens with a quick recap starting at college in 1992, when the “Flossy Posse” first became an inseparable, hard-partying unit. The closeness lasted through graduation and even later, but marriages, careers and other inevitable divergent paths of adult life have weakened what was meant to be a four-way lifelong union. Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall), a popular self-help author whose latest bestseller is You Can Have It All, decides to fix that when she’s invited to be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Essence Festival in New Orleans, reconvening the posse for a luxury weekend of girl time.
Ryan’s lily-white agent Liz (Kate Walsh), who likes to think she’s in on the “#BlackGirlMagic,” is working on closing a massive deal during the festival, setting up her star client and the latter’s husband Stewart (Mike Colter), a retired NFL player, with their own talk show and product line.
Lee and the screenwriters establish the distinct personalities of the four principal women with deft economy. Dina (Tiffany Haddish) is the clown of the group, a man-crazy hothead who, in possibly the movie’s most hilarious scene, blithely steamrolls her boss as he’s attempting to fire her for assaulting a co-worker. Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) has traded in her former freaknik credentials to be a nurse and nurturing mother of two, pretending not to mind the absence of romance since her divorce. And Sasha (Queen Latifah) has moved from top-tier journalism into bottom-feeder celebrity muckraking with a gossip site, whose backer is threatening to pull the plug if she doesn’t start coming up with juicier items to goose ad revenue.
The requisite squealing airport reunion segues directly to the French Quarter, with brass ensemble The Soul Rebels blasting Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” Already, even before the boozing and carousing has fully gotten underway, there’s infectious enjoyment in watching these women (both the characters and the performers) cut loose and have fun. But when one of Sasha’s regular paparazzi forwards her a photo taken the night before of Stewart making out with Simone (Deborah Ayorinde), a self-promoting “Instagram skank,” a cloud is cast over the group, revealing the cracks in Ryan’s famously perfect world.
The setup is formulaic and the characters cut from familiar cloth, but the template is fleshed out with freshness and verve as each woman exhales alongside the three other people in the world who know her best. Weaving through crowds on Bourbon Street or in the Superdome, where we catch glimpses of concert performances by Common, Diddy and others, the posse shake off the concerns of their regular existences, including Ryan, whose professional responsibilities and marital troubles don’t inhibit her ability to get crazy. The divine Hall is definitely not straitjacketed by her designated role as “the responsible one,” her voice shifting into her trademark squawk in more excitable moments.
The sparkplug that repeatedly ignites them all is shameless wild child Dina, a role likely to be a breakout for the volcanically funny Haddish, best known for The Carmichael Show. And when she scores some 200-year-old absinthe (from Mike Epps in a cameo), ignoring the “imbibe with caution” warning, their night out turns hallucinogenic — Girls “Trip,” geddit?
There’s a cute moment around that point where the movie acknowledges the screen history of Latifah and Pinkett Smith by having them exchange a knowing look when Dina ushers them into a dance club, shouting, “C’mon bitches, let’s set it off!” It’s followed by that most time-honored of female smackdowns, a dance-off against the aggressively adversarial Simone and her girls, which only makes the scene more irresistible.
The two posse members who have suffered betrayal or neglect both get to feel like queens again through some avid male attention. Ryan gets drawn into a flirtatious knot with Julian (Larenz Tate), a college friend who has filled out nicely and now plays bass for Ne-Yo; and frisky young stranger Malik (Kofi Siriboe) sets his sights on prim Lisa, even before she’s unleashed. His intimidating endowment prompts a tutorial from Dina in “grapefruiting.” Don’t ask. Haddish tackles most of the more outrageously vulgar end of the comedy spectrum, and while it occasionally gets a tad gross, her fearlessness is breathtaking. Though did we really need not one but two golden showers raining down on New Orleans revelers?
Lee lets the pacing lag once uncomfortable reality intrudes, and the public humiliation of Ryan causes her to doubt Sasha’s loyalty. That in turn sparks animosity amongst all four friends in a somewhat rote development. But such rifts are necessary in order to be mended in movies like this, and the warm feelings engendered toward the characters make you root for their inevitable happiness — and the strengthened renewal of their sisterhood — even if they’re more diverting company in down-and-dirty mode than soft-and-fuzzy.
At just over two hours, the movie could be tighter and some of its transitions more elegant. But the vibrancy of the authentic New Orleans locations and the bustle of the Essence crowds (Mariah Carey, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Ava DuVernay and Best Man alum Morris Chestnut are among familiar faces glimpsed) keep things humming. Mostly, however, it’s the likability of the cast and their relaxed rapport together that maintains the flow even in weak script spots. Lee rolls the end credits on a suitably celebratory image of all four leads, dressed to slay and shimmying through the Quarter in the midst of a brass-band parade. They look like they’re having a ball.