“Nobody’s perfect.” “It’s just a flesh wound.” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” Some of the funniest lines in movie history don’t sound terribly inspired on paper, divorced from the specifics of setup and delivery. So until you see the sensationally assured and entertaining new comedy “Girls Trip,” you’ll have to take my word for it that “It’s chlamydia, y’all!” deserves early consideration for the pantheon.
The context of that line, delivered with fist-pumping gusto by a revelatory Tiffany Haddish, is, like most jokes, best left unexplained. But it’s the first laugh of many in this sexy, sharply written and beautifully acted romp from director Malcolm D. Lee, who follows four black women and old college friends as they enjoy a wild New Orleans weekend. Against the vibrant sights and jazzy sounds of the city’s music scene, raunchy high jinks ensue, old grudges resurface and the enduring power of friendship is both tested and reasserted.
The mix of outrageous comedy and gentle sentimentality is familiar but very fresh, especially in the hands of four actresses who effortlessly establish a sense of shared history. The leader of the self-named “Flossy Posse” is Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall), a bestselling self-help author who teaches others to live by her maxim: “If I will it, I can have it all.” She’s clearly being set up for a fall. Her football-star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter), has been cheating on her with “some Instagram ho,” endangering their lucrative power-couple status.
Ryan tries to push all that aside when she accepts an invitation to speak at the Essence Festival, the perfect excuse for a long-overdue reunion with the three best buddies she hasn’t seen in ages. There’s Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), a hard-working nurse and single mom who’s reluctant to get back in the dating game. Her opposite in nearly every respect is the hot-headed, foul-mouthed and sexually brazen Dina (Haddish), a walking id who can wield a wine bottle and a grapefruit with equal fearlessness (I’ll leave it to you to guess which is the weapon and which is the sexual stimulant).
The most complex relationship is between Ryan and Sasha (Queen Latifah), a once-respected journalist turned bottom-feeding celebrity blogger who’s desperate for a hot scoop. She gets one when evidence of Stewart’s infidelity falls into her hands, setting in motion a plot that balances a thoughtful take on long-term relationship woes with various short-term Bourbon Street shenanigans. There are absinthe-induced hallucinations, exciting glimpses of the festival scene (blink and you’ll miss Ava DuVernay, Common and Mariah Carey, though not the cameos by Sean Combs and Iyanla Vanzant), a girls-against-girls dance-off/brawl and an airborne urination scene funny enough to empty a few audience bladders in turn.
As the director of “The Best Man” and “The Best Man Holiday,” Lee has an obvious knack for comedies about friends getting together after a long absence. More importantly, he knows the folly of trying to squeeze even one (let alone all) of his black characters into a constricting mold. That clear-eyed sensibility translates smoothly to this more raucous distaff-dominated canvas, which screenwriters Kenya Barris (“black-ish”) and Tracy Oliver (“Survivor’s Remorse”) have packed with warm vibes, boisterous laughs and the odd melodramatic flare-up.
Not all the jokes land, but they don’t have to. One of the pleasures of “Girls Trip” is how smoothly it flows from gag to gag without feeling hectic or assaultive. It knows the importance of letting its characters and its viewers catch their breath.
Around the halfway mark, the women gather around a bed for an impromptu prayer session, a moment that Universal Pictures has featured in some of its posters with the tagline “Father, forgive us in advance for this wild weekend.” It’s a marketing-friendly misread of a sweet, sincere scene that gently chips away at the stereotypical idea of what a God-fearing woman looks like (one who keeps her mouth shut and her legs shut tighter).
It’s not just inclusive; it’s downright enveloping.
— Justin Chang
Funnily enough, “Girls Trip” does turn out to be a movie about forgiveness, but it isn’t the women’s debauched antics that cry out for redemption. It’s the subtle ways they’ve hurt each other and themselves over the years, sometimes by pursuing their own dreams at the expense of friendship, and sometimes by letting those dreams die.
Hall, a strong supporting player in “The Best Man” films (and a reliable firecracker in the mostly dreadful “Scary Movie” franchise), gets the kind of lead showcase here she’s deserved more often than she’s received. She gives a lovely and sympathetic performance as Ryan, a woman who sells clarity of mind to the masses even as she’s forced to confront her own delusions. Pinkett Smith is terrifically game as the most uptight and mercilessly teased member of the posse, while Latifah (her costar in 1996’s “Set It Off”) puts a more dramatic spin on her performance as Sasha, a jaded and often judgmental collector of other people’s secrets.
All three of these actresses seem to know that this is Haddish’s breakout moment, and they step aside accordingly. A comedian whose credits include “The Carmichael Show” and “Keanu,” Haddish approaches every scene with a positively joyous ferocity; she elevates vulgarity to a verbal and gestural art form. But her domination of the laughs doesn’t leave “Girls Trip” feeling lopsided or unbalanced, even if it runs maybe 10 minutes longer and baggier than it has to. That can happen when a movie knows there’s more to life, and even to comedy, than laughter.
Lee, Barris and Oliver previously collaborated on last year’s “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” which renewed that aging ensemble-comedy franchise with sharp, pointed discussion of guns, gang violence and the fate of black men and women in a post-Obama America. “Girls Trip” isn’t as hard-hitting or topical in its concerns, but in the context of Hollywood’s ongoing strides toward greater diversity it would be short-sighted to dismiss the movie’s liberating and inherently political vision of black female sexuality, its willingness to let its women pursue their pleasures (Larenz Tate and Kofi Siriboe pop up as two easy-on-the-eyes love interests) and juggle their aspirations without being reduced to either.
Some have already positioned the movie as a “Bridesmaids” or “Hangover” for African American women, a formulation that’s far more limiting than its potentially enormous audience deserves. “Girls Trip” may be a corrective of sorts, especially on the heels of girls-gone-wild junk like “Rough Night,” but it’s the kind of corrective that feels as generous as it is specific. It’s not just inclusive; it’s downright enveloping.
One of the more pointed throwaways involves Ryan’s enthusiastic agent, Elizabeth (Kate Walsh), who says things like “Preach, girl!” in an overeager bid to become an honorary member of the sisterhood. Basically the white version of the innumerable assistant/sidekick roles long assigned to women of color, Elizabeth is rightly put in her place, which hardly stops Walsh from giving her own consistently hilarious, scene-stealing turn. It’s a gem-like reminder that maybe you can’t have it all, but some movies come awfully close.
MPAA rating: R, for crude and sexual content throughout, pervasive language, brief graphic nudity and drug material
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In general release