ABOVE PHOTO: This image released by Universal Pictures shows Jo Koy, center, in “Easter Sunday.” (Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures via AP)
By Jocelyn Noveck
A boisterous extended clan gathers for a family holiday, launching the requisite arguments, hurt feelings, grudges, inside jokes, laughter, love, reconciliation, and lots of eating, plus maybe a car chase.
So far, so familiar.
What’s different about “Easter Sunday,” a joyful if overly broad family dramedy starring comedian Jo Koy, is that this extended clan is a Filipino American family and the cast is almost all Filipino, with a few familiar actors finally getting cast as Filipino characters and that in itself is a welcome achievement, especially for Koy, whose life is clearly echoed here and who anchors the enterprise with a winning charm. The writing could surely be sharper, and the ending is more than a little sappy. But this is an undeniable step forward for representation on the big screen.
Koy clearly channels much of his own story in this, his feature film debut, drawing from his hugely popular standup comedy (Jay Chandrasekhar directs from a script by Kate Angelo and Ken Cheng.). He plays Joe Valencia, a Los Angeles comedian seeking his big acting break in Hollywood — just as he’s navigating family issues on multiple fronts, all coming to a head on, well, Easter Sunday.
We meet Joe, a divorced dad, on a day of competing obligations. His son, Junior (a sweetly goofy Brandon Wardell) needs his presence at a school meeting to discuss mediocre grades. His own demanding mom, Susan (Lydia Gaston, blending imperious, demanding, loving and needy) is constantly calling, making sure he’s on track for Easter celebrations. And he’s auditioning for a sitcom — something that’ll take him beyond that beer commercial where he’s famous for the line, “Let’s get this party started, baby!”
Joe (unsurprisingly) misses the school meeting but makes the audition, only to be told that they love him but want a “half-Filipino accent” — even though it’s an accent he doesn’t have. “This show just wants a funny-sounding Filipino,” he complains to his agent, who tells him to just suck it up and do the accent. (The agent is played, winkingly, by director Chandrasekhar as a guy who’s always suspiciously driving through tunnels and losing his cell signal.)
Easter Sunday comes, and Joe heads up the California coast to Daly City and the Filipino American neighborhood where his mom and her sister, Teresa (Tia Carrere, who has said this is her first Filipino role in a 40-year career), are each planning holiday meals. They’re feuding, too, over something or other. It doesn’t help that the two women happen to wear the exact same dress to church (yes, that old joke.) Much funnier is their fierce competition over the balikbayan boxes filled with gifts to be sent to family back home.
As the holiday festivities proceed apace and Joe tries to keep his sitcom prospects alive, several subplots come into play. One involves Joe’s lovable but less-than-sensible cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero) and his ill-conceived entrepreneurial efforts, which land him and Joe into a potentially deadly conflict with gun-toting bully Dev Deluxe (Asif Ali) and bring them together, improbably, with Filipino American star Lou Diamond Phillips, playing himself.
There’s also a brief run-in with the law during a car chase, the law being none other than Tiffany Haddish, in a cameo as Vanessa, an ex of Joe’s with an axe to grind and now, a cop’s badge.
Haddish is, not surprisingly, quite funny. Less welcome is the whole slapsticky criminal-gang subplot that detracts from the more human themes. Speaking of humanity, the lovely Eva Noblezada projects it beautifully as Tala, a romantic interest for Junior — a confident young woman who shows the LA-raised boy some of the values around family that she’s learned in Daly City.
If you’re a Broadway fan, you may know Noblezada from “Hadestown,” in which her terrific singing talent, teased here for a few seconds, is on full display. (Couldn’t they have given her more bars?) Noblezada’s unforced delivery makes her scenes a highlight in a film that overall relies too heavily on broad comedy. A church service turned standup routine seems especially forced.
And yet, one can’t help leaving with a smile. Food, family, a big karaoke scene … and a spotlight on an immigrant community underrepresented in Hollywood. There are worse ways to spend 96 minutes.
“Easter Sunday,” a Universal Studios release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some strong language, and suggestive references. “Running time: 96 minutes. Two stars out of four.