It’s a rare thing these days for a studio comedy to get a theatrical release without a blockbuster intellectual property to back them up. That makes Easter Sunday feel like an event in some respects — certainly as a landmark of Filipino representation in mainstream American culture, but especially right now as a title that Universal Pictures thought was better suited for the communal theatrical experience than the couch-bound comfort of a streaming service. All that’s needed to make the experience complete is for the film to be funny.
Easter Sunday is not very funny.
To be fair, the premise has promise. Comedian Jo Koy plays Joe Valencia, a fictionalized version of himself who’s trying to make his way from stand-up to sitcom acting. After an audition goes awry when the casting director asks him to perform with an accent, Joe enlists his agent di lui (director and Broken Lizard alum Jay Chandrasekhar) to try and salvage his chances of getting the role. However, their constant contact quickly becomes an obstacle between Joe and his teenage son Junior (Brandon Wardell), and eventually a major complication as he joins his extended family’s Easter Sunday celebration.
To be fair, Joe’s professional life is far from the first priority for the rest of his family, whose members mostly try to navigate around a longstanding conflict between his mother (Lydia Gaston) and Theresa (Tia Carrere), his Tita. Neither Joe’s sister (Elena Juatco) nor his titos or titas (including Melody Butiu, Joey Guila, and Rodney To) know how or why their fight began, but the tension is ripe for comedy — at least in theory. But aside from knowing winks about the apparent universality of Filipino family in-fighting, there aren’t many actual jokes.
Instead, the film invests screen time in an increasingly absurd subplot involving Joe’s cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero), who invested start-up funds from Joe into what Eugene calls a “hype truck,” rather than the taco truck that the two of them agreed upon. Faster than you can say “unnecessary crime subplot,” Joe finds himself roped into a scheme involving a disgruntled “luxury goods dealer” named Tony Daytona (Asif Ali), the stolen boxing gloves of Manny Pacquiao, and a quest to fence them for cash . The bizarre situation exemplifies the film’s over-reliance on comedy emerging out of extreme scenarios instead of heightening the stakes of Joe and his family members’ plight with laugh lines or even sight gags.
That said, the few efforts made to spotlight its comedians repeatedly stops the film dead. The calculated interruption of an Easter sermon leads to a literal stand-up set. A lackluster high-speed chase serves as a set-up for Tiffany Haddish, playing a police officer, to perform as her fast-talking, flirtatious self di lei. Not to damn it with faint praise, but a cameo during a visit to a prospective buyer of the stolen gloves will almost certainly be the highlight of the film for many. The movie’s commitment to actually being funny always feels right around the corner, instead relying too frequently, and lazily, upon the overlapping, well-established and yet under-explored threads of family drama that give the film structure.
And yet again, the down-to-Earth sweetness of the sitcom-esque domestic strife feels directly at odds with the over-the-top threat of violence that drives the film’s stakes. It feels as if a mellow dramedy and an action movie were forced by their overstressed parents to share a runtime, with all the intention to give both an opportunity to succeed, but preventing either from being able to independently thrive. Easter Sunday, for all its faults, is still nominally watchable, but it’s a wasteland of unfocused potential. This deserved to be a big theatrical event, but this particular holiday will all too easily be forgotten.