The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Easter Sunday’: Comedy about Filipino American culture rings true-ish

Jo Koy stars in a movie about family tensions, loosely based on Koy’s stand-up comedy

Brandon Wardell, left, and Jo Koy in “Easter Sunday.” (Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures)
Placeholder while article actions load
(2.5 stars)

You don’t have to be of Filipino descent to get the movie “Easter Sunday,” loosely based on the life experience of Filipino American stand-up comic Jo Koy and centering on a man trying to navigate the fractured dynamic of a holiday with his extended family.

But it does help. (Full disclosure: My parents moved from the Philippines to Washington, where I was born, in the 1950s.)

Despite its broad comedy, typical of “Dukes of Hazzard” director Jay Chandrasekhar, the film has some tender and wise moments. And even if you don’t get all the ethnic jokes, there’s plenty of family drama that anybody will recognize, no matter their background.

Koy plays Joe Valencia, a Los Angeles comedian trying to land a part on a sitcom. (ABC recently rejected the pilot of a sitcom starring Koy but is reportedly interested in redeveloping the show.) Joe auditions well — producers especially love his impersonation of his mother’s thick accent — but they want Joe to up his own accent. “You’re at 30,” he is told. “Bring it up to 50.”

Joe doesn’t want to exploit his heritage by playing up an accent he doesn’t have, but his smarmy agent Nick (Chandrasekhar) tells him to go ahead with it.

Ironically, the cast of “Easter Sunday” features actors who are indeed putting on an accent they don’t have — like Tia Carrere, whose role as Joe’s aunt marks the first time in her long career that she’s been asked to play a Filipino. (Carrere is of Spanish, Filipino and Chinese descent.) So there’s a meta-conflict at play here, and one wonders if Nick’s frequent goading of Joe resonates with Chandrasekhar’s own experience in the industry. (Born in Chicago, Chandrasekhar is of Tamil descent.)

Identity isn’t the only conflict. Joe is a divorced father who’s more concerned about his career than about his teenage son, known as Junior (Brandon Wardell). Joe plans make it up to him: He’ll take him on a road trip for Easter Sunday dinner, but that just gives Dad more chances to let Junior down.

It sounds more like family drama than comedy, doesn’t it?

And you might well wonder why a movie called “Easter Sunday” is being released in August. Although it’s set on what is, for many devout Filipinos, the most important day of the liturgical calendar, the film isn’t particularly religious. During Easter morning services, Joe even ends up doing a stand-up routine. Besides that, the order of Mass depicted is highly unorthodox. That probably wouldn’t have played well on a holy day — not for much of its apparent target audience, anyway.

Screenwriters Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo take great liberties with Catholicism, and their irreverence is such that when Joe and his cousin (Eugene Cordero) arrive at Joe’s mother’s house, they turn around the statue of Santo Niño — the child Jesus — because it creeps them out.

I said this wasn’t a religious picture, but this turning away from Jesus seems to be a lot of what “Easter Sunday” is about. Part of Joe’s shtick is that Mom (a terrific Lydia Gaston) is always complaining that her son didn’t become a nurse (as so many Filipinos follow that vocation) and that he never comes home. For all the frantic humor — including a crowd-pleasing cameo by Tiffany Haddish as a police officer — the movie is about one man’s fall from grace, his struggle with failure and fatherhood, and his strained relationships with his family.

While the adults are busy with their careers and petty squabbles, it’s encouraging that the younger generation seems more levelheaded. It’s young Ruth (Eva Noblezada of “Luck”), Junior’s love interest, who’s the movie’s moral center, especially when she scolds her prospective beau after he gives Dad an earful. “Bro, that’s not how we talk to our parents here,” she tells him. Ruthie also offers the movie’s richest ethnic metaphor: that the popular dessert drink halo-halo, which includes crushed ice, evaporated milk and various colorful fruits, is as messy as their heritage — as messy as family and, perhaps, as life itself. “But you keep coming back for more.”

“Easter Sunday” is, like halo-halo, a bit messy. I wouldn’t have chosen some of its ingredients. But there’s enough flavor here that, even if you don’t like, say, coconut, you can just pick it out.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence, some strong language and suggestive references. In English and some Tagalog with subtitles. 96 minutes.

Loading...