Review: Comedian Jo Koy Goes Personal for Easter Sunday, Complete With a Chaotic Family and Mouth-Watering Food

Fully admitting that I have no prior exposure to stand-up comic Jo Koy, I walked into what I believe is his feature debut in a starring role, Easter Sunday, a little green as to what his comedy or life was really about. Like a great number of comedians of late, Koy has adapted (although the film was actually written by Kate Angelo and Ken Cheng) his life as a first-generation Filipino-American into a film in which he plays a stand-up comic named Joe Valencia, whose biggest career accomplishment is a national beer ad with a catchphrase that everyone he meets seems to know. But he’s on the verge of landing a big role in a new sitcom, with the only issue being that the producers want him to adopt a Filipino accent because they think it sounds funnier. Koy refuses, in part because he knows he’s funny without the accent (one he uses on stage when he impersonates his mother), and also because laughing at accents is about as outdated as entertainment gets.

While he waits to see if his agent (Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandrasekhar, who also directed the film) can smooth things over with the showrunners, Joe is pressured into driving from LA to San Francisco to visit his mother (Lydia Gaston) and extended family for Easter weekend. He decides to take his son Junior (Brandon Wardell, playing it like a mopey teenage Conor Oberst) along for the trip (Joe and his ex-wife don’t agree on much, but they do agree that Joe and his son don’t spend enough time together). Like many other films that involve a big family gathering of a particular nationality or culture (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Crazy Rich Asians), Easter Sunday does an admirable job of showing both the traditions and habits unique to Filipino families and others that are universal to all families. If you can’t do that, why make the movie?

Joe’s family is all about controlled chaos. His mother and Aunt Theresa (Tia Carrere) are feuding and sabotaging each other’s Easter plans. His cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero) took the money Joe invested in his taco truck and turned it into a Hype Truck, which only sells stuff people think is cool (it sounds vague, and it is), and various other uncles and aunts seem to add fuel to the family flame that makes Joe feel like he has to lie about getting the sitcom deal in order to shut them up about his life. Junior finds some relief when he meets Tala, a cool Filipino girl (Eva Noblezada), and Joe is strangely comforted in his anxiety when he’s pulled over by a police officer who just happens to be his ex-high school girlfriend Vanessa (Tiffany Haddish).

Koy is smart enough to realize that he’s only an okay actor, so he covers his tracks by including a handful of scenes in which he’s basically doing his stand-up act, including a not-so-impromptu sermon at church. These sequences stick out and take the audience right out of the movie, but they also happen to be the funniest sequences in the whole film. Koy is a gifted comic, and his observations about family are funny without being insulting or vulgar (this movie is decidedly family friendly).  But the rest of the movie struggles sometimes. Instead of being confident in the inherent drama of its family story, Easter Sunday manufactures a villain in the form of a Dev Deluxe (Asif Ali), to whom cousin Eugene owes a great deal of money, which leads to Eugene and Joe getting involved in an overly complicated scheme to sell a very valuable piece of sports memorabilia to a famous actor. The reveals are amusing, but the road to get to them is long and tedious at times.

Easter Sunday is a harmless, heartfelt holiday movie (only a little more than three months late) that made me laugh a few times and made me hungry—seriously, the food on display here is mouth watering. The caper elements of the movie are mostly tedious, but the family dynamic is genuinely sweet and hard not to be moved by. I wonder if Koy can keep any future film projects as personal as this; I hope he at least tries.

The film opens in theaters Friday.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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