Jo Koy can be hilarious, riotously so at times. He has no trouble filling auditoriums with his spot-on stand-up act. Much of what makes him so funny are his observations about his Filipino American family: his aunts, his uncles, his cousins, his sisters and, most of all, his mom. Koy’s gift for deft comedy is too easily forgotten watching the well-intentioned but underwhelming “Easter Sunday,” his first starring vehicle.
Koy plays actor Joe Valencia. Living in Los Angeles, Joe is starting to feel he’s dancing on the razor’s edge between success or failure. He’s got an agent, portrayed by the movie’s director Jay Chandrasekhar. He’s got a beer commercial with a sticky tagline — “Let’s get this party started, baybay!” — that long ago became an albatross. Strangers in stores and family members quote it at him.
When we meet him, Joe has an important audition for a TV show, one that could take him to the next level. Only his teenage son is screwing up in school, and Junior (Brandon Wardell) really wants Joe to attend a parent-teacher conference. The timing’s tight, and Joe breaks a promise, of course. Sure, his reasons for being too late might have been good if not-showing-up were not already a bad habit of his — a fact, his exasperated ex-wife (Carly Pope) and her annoying hockey goalie husband (Micheal Weaver) reiterate.
In an effort to connect with Junior Joe picks up Junior — who embodies a mix of the blasé, the wounded and the hopeful — and heads from Los Angeles to Joe’s childhood home in San Francisco’s Daly City. There he finds his mother (Lydia Gaston) and Tita Teresa (Tia Carrera) feuding, again. If it’s not about who makes the best empanadas, it’s about who looks best in the magenta dress they each show up wearing at church, or any number of other slights.
Joe’s cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero) and sister Regina (Elena Juatco) are looking to him to fix the squabbling. Only, we’ve already witnessed that Joe has familial troubles of his own that he’s not navigating with ease.
It’s tricky writing a good narrative for a master of one-liners. Television sitcoms typically don’t find their groove until they figure out how to give the rest of the folks in the story real material, too. Writers Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo built a creaky vehicle for Koy’s tart and tender insights about his family. (Perhaps they assumed the audience’s working knowledge of the star’s stand-up would be the mortar?)
Instead of character and chemistry, the film employs a series of running gags meant to support the star’s likability and not compete with his wisecracks. A mini-stand-up routine is even written into the movie. At the Easter church service, the minister taunts him from the pulpit. Joe takes the bait, the mic and delivers a homily that has them chuckling in the pews. Joe’s message might solicit a moment of sisterly reflection, but the setup feels forced.
It’s absolutely worth celebrating that the comedian wanted to make a family friendly comedy that teased but also honored Filipino American life. It should have been possible to make it funnier and keen. Koy’s stand-up consistently spoofs his mother without always breaching the PG-13 barrier. Although his R-rated comedy is great, that “Easter Sunday” is more sweet than tart isn’t the issue.
A tantalizing moment of possibility comes early in “Easter Sunday” when the camera pans Daly City’s pastel-hued rows of homes, briefly teasing us with the sense that we will be invited into the immigrant neighborhood or welcomed back home. For all the food jokes, the bickering family scenes, a winking cameo by Lou Diamond Phillips and a divinely spooky Baby Jesus statuette, it was not to be.
A subplot revolving around Joe’s hustling cousin Eugene (who turned his food truck into a “hype truck”), the Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao’s boxing gloves and a local hood by the name of Dev Deluxe (Asif Ali) is great on the communal reverence for the PacMan but winds up being silly. Perhaps as silly and a bit more edgy is Tiffany Haddish’s police officer pulling Joe over. Vanessa may be a cop but she’s also an old flame with a hurt still smoldering.
It’s common to come out of a theater wanting the movie to have been funnier — not just for yourself but for the lead and the cast. “Easter Sunday” and Joe Valencia’s family could use a do-over. Maybe his agent can make that sitcom happen. Jo Koy and his family deserve better, too. How do we know? Because there are some very fine Jo Koy comedy specials streaming as evidence.