One of the most successful stand-ups in the country with multiple Netflix specials to his name, Jo Koy has entertained millions with tales of his Filipino upbringing. He regales sold-out crowds with stories of his delightful, somewhat overbearing mother, unpacks the intricacies of Filipino food and lifestyle, and analyzes the differences between various Asian cultures.
Now, he has lent his perspective to “Easter Sunday,” a new comedy starring Koy as Joe Valencia, a version of himself, who returns to the Bay Area for the eponymous holiday to deal with his extended Filipino family. It’s the first major studio comedy about a Filipino-American family featuring a nearly-all Filipino cast, and was shepherded to the screen with the help of Steven Spielberg, an avowed fan of Koy’s, whose DreamWorks Pictures co-produced the film.
Billed as a “love letter to the Filipino-American community,” “Easter Sunday” certainly earns its bona fides for elevating a historically underrepresented community to the big screen. Koy’s stand-up routines and personal life clearly inspired many of the film’s familial details, from the food to the petty squabbles to Joe’s family filling a balikbayan box (a care package sent to the Philippines by overseas Filipinos). Koy’s mother, an enormous influence on his stand-up, feels acutely represented in Lydia Gaston’s performance as Joe’s mother, a domineering but ultimately kind-hearted presence in the film. There’s a concerted effort on the part of Koy, screenwriters Kate Angelo and Ken Cheng, and director Jay Chandrasekhar to depict and validate the experiences of Filipino Americans for mainstream audiences.
Unfortunately, those noble intentions don’t suddenly render “Easter Sunday” any less slapdash or unfunny. While the relationships between Joe and his family are rooted in specific, real-life details, it’s in service of an overly broad, haphazard story involving way too many narrative threads. These include Joe and his cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero) trying to pawn a pair of stolen Manny Pacquiao’s gloves while evading their maniacal owner, a feud between Valencia’s mother and his aunt Tita Theresa (Tia Carrere, notably playing a Filipina for the first time in a career spent playing different ethnicities), the strained relationship between Joe and his son (Brandon Wardell), and a potential sitcom deal that might collapse if Joe doesn’t agree to play a role with a stereotypical accent. Though the script dutifully checks in on these subplots every 15 minutes or so, they neither dovetail nor wrap up meaningfully. By the end, it’s all just stuff that happens.
“Easter Sunday” might have shouldered that heavy narrative weight if more jokes landed, but the film also stumbles in that regard. Granted, it might play very differently if you’re already in the tank for Koy’s comedy, but without that prior, much of the humor scans as too broad or corny. There’s plenty of conspicuous face acting and communal yelling and one-liners about Filipino culture clearly ripped from Koy’s stand-up (“You see all that fog? That’s from all the Filipinos in Daly City using their rice cookers at the same time.”). There are some minor bright spots here and there, like Chandrasekhar cameoing as Joe’s agent by almost literally phoning in a performance where he delivers multiple variations on a single joke, i.e., falsely claiming to Joe that he’s in a bad reception area as an excuse to hang up on him. Similarly, Tiffany Haddish also makes an appearance so she can take control of the movie for roughly five minutes, and Lou Diamond Phillips, another famous Filipino who rose to fame playing Mexican-American roles, briefly cameos as himself to deliver a couple jokes. It’s a rich tapestry of mildly amusing bit parts padding out a paper-thin film.
Part of the problem lies with the film’s vain impulses. Granted, “Easter Sunday” is a Jo Koy vehicle, but the film’s script and Chandrasekhar’s direction go out of its way to overly flatter the fictionalized version of the comedian. There are a few early scenes where Joe does or says something hypothetically amusing and there’s either a reaction shot of someone laughing or the shot itself features people laughing in the background. At one point, “Easter Sunday” stops dead for Joe to launch into a stand-up routine at his family’s church that’s so uproarious, at least judging by the (real and possibly foley) laughter, that people empty their wallets into the collection plate. Even the fake beer commercial featuring Joe whose catchphrase strangers torture him with (a cheap imitation of a similar joke made better on the series “Party Down”) basically serves to illustrate that Joe is very popular. Although Joe is burdened by his mother’s hectoring disapproval and Eugene’s terrible business schemes (in this case, a “hype truck,” a phrase that’s repeatedly bellowed by Cordero) and his son’s irritation with his work-related absences, the characters in “Easter Sunday” go out of their way to express the greatness of Joe, and by extension Jo Koy.
Maybe this is the price of admission for a film built around Koy’s life and it’s actively playing to an audience already in love with the comic. But such a transparent motivation renders any dramatic conflict or stakes that could potentially rise from such a lightweight film preemptively moot. We know that Joe and his mother will confront some of their past disputes and both will come to a renewed understanding of other. We know that Joe’s mother and Tita Theresa will eventually reconcile, though I suppose I couldn’t predict it would occur during a karaoke rendition of the Black Eyed Peas’ 2009 hit “I Gotta Feeling.” (Incidentally, Black Eyed Peas member apl.de.ap is half-Filipino.) We know that Joe’s son will eventually understand that his dad is trying his best and that no amount of professional success will ever be worth betraying your roots and that family has each other’s back even though they can drive us crazy, and so on. Every single narrative beat feels both hyper-calculated and half-assed, as if the main goal was to simply get every major Filipino actor available in a room together and figure it out from there.
“Easter Sunday” suffers from various other maladies, minor and major: a bland visual palette and a bafflingly stilted editing rhythm, both of which can’t completely be explained away by the COVID production; an inexplicable car chase, which seemingly exists to highlight the visual comparisons between Koy and Vin Diesel (they’re both bald, you see); and a halfhearted emphasis on shortsighted industry racism, complete with pulled punches and stale details. Yet, the film’s general laziness is its most disappointing element. Every performer conveys sincere enthusiasm to be on screen with other Filipino actors, but their joy is squandered by a cartoonish story that squanders its honest core. “Easter Sunday” will likely please Koy’s fanbase and possibly anyone eager to find grandma-and-kid-friendly entertainment, but everyone else might find it lacking.
“Easter Sunday” is in theaters now.