Tuesday 10 October 2017

Girls Trip (2017) - Movie Review

Back in July of this year, in the middle of some potentially scary medical issues (multiple hospital visits, a lot of dead-ends as to what the hell was going from doctors, that kind of thing), I only managed to get one review done in that whole month. Knowing the frank inconsistency in terms of when reviews get posted here and at what frequency, I still feel like I hideously dropped the ball. Partly because it showed a certain amount of slackness on my part (hobby or no hobby, I take this work far too seriously to let a little thing like potential death get in the way of it, and I am actually serious about that point) and partly because that one review was on a film that I both hated and could probably write a thorough review for without even seeing it. Yes, Rough Night is legitimately that bad, one of the latest instances of the ‘chick flick’ sub-genre digging itself into a cesspool of hatefulness and misguided intentions.
Well, in a double saving-throw, I am looking at a film that has a lot of similarities to Rough Night on the surface (distaff Hangover knock-off) and giving myself a chance to look like somewhat less of a sexist asshole by showing how that very idea can work… supposedly. This could be just as bad, or worse, or it could be legitimately decent; only one way to find out. Keep all grapefruits out of arm’s reach.

The plot: Lifestyle guru Ryan (Regina Hall), when offered the chance to be the keynote speaker at the annual Essence Music Festival, she decides to use the opportunity to bring back together her group of friends from college: The Flossy Posse. She invites Sasha (Queen Latifah), Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Dina (Tiffany Haddish) to New Orleans with her for the festival, but as they try to reconnect with their more free-spirited days, it seems that unresolved conflicts amongst the Posse could be brought back to the surface.

Well, I can already tell that this film is going to have at least one leg up on Rough Night: The cast is fucking fantastic. Hall knocks it out of the park as the straight-man of the group, holding everything together while delivering on the film’s most powerful moments. Ryan Pierce gets openly compared to BeyoncĂ© but, as a testament to black female independence, Bey doesn’t even compare. Pinkett Smith does really damn well, even considering her place as the overprotective mother of the main group, and she not only lets loose for some rather funny moments but also delivers a fair bit of motherly guilt tripping that is accurate to the point of being slightly unnerving.
Haddish puts off the usual irritation that comes with being the impulsive firecracker, and instead makes for a boisterous but incredibly welcome presence. She’s still just a touch psychotic, but not to a degree where you start wondering why she even has any friends left to begin with; she’s kooky but it’s the kind of kookiness you’d want for a wild night out. Latifah manages to offset everyone else rather nicely, and along with holding her own in the group dynamic, she also does extremely well at delivering the film’s bigger statements concerning celebrity culture and the guttersnipes it ends up attracting.

Beyond our leads, we have Larenz Tate as one of the most down-to-earth love interests I’ve seen in far too long, Luke Cage himself Mike Colter delivering as the cheating bastard husband without it completely flying off the handle (this is as far removed from War Room as it gets, and thank the goddess for that), Mike Epps in a small but memorable role as a liquor merchant, Kate Walsh as Ryan’s manager adding some wiggerisms to the mix without it being needlessly hateful, and Deborah Ayorinde as an Instagram model-turned-homewrecker definitely gets across plastic vanity in just the right doses. Oh, and there’s a slew of recognisable musicians in the mix too from Common to Mariah Carey to P. Diddy himself; heavy on the star power here and the film honestly ends up looking a lot more charged because of it. That Cirroc money sure goes a long way.

As much as I’d love to rub it in Rough Night’s face just how it failed in comparison to this, there’s really no point: The two are barely comparable and it is frankly astounding how well this turns out. For a start, and it’s more than a little sad that I need to point this out, our four leads actually come across as close friends. Their chemistry on-screen is incredible with everyone delivering their own share of verbal punches, leading to some very naturally-funny conversations between them. Even when it gets to learning how to ‘grapefruit’ a guy, it still rings true of an actual exchange that two people would have in the real world. For another, each of the four are given time for their own subplots to be fleshed out. Sure, Ryan ends up getting most of the spotlight, but between Dina’s adventurous but still cautious hedonism, Sasha’s conflicts between her job and her friends, and Lisa needing to get away from the doldrums of domestic life, everyone here leaves an impression that they have a reason to be in this story.
And for a third, and by far the most commendable thing about all of this, they act like real friends. How many times have characters in a film discovered a terrible truth connected to one of their friends, only to hold off on telling them anything out of fear of hurting their feelings? You know, that trite garbage that has consistently led to the most tedious moments anytime it gets used in films and TV? None of that here. Our four leads come across like they trust each other enough to handle bad news, and the information ends up getting shared with the key person only moments after we discover it ourselves. No forced tension, no drawn-out misunderstandings that brings everything screeching to a halt; just the straight dope. Quite frankly, “dope” is the first word that comes to mind in terms of what I think of this approach.

With the high number of celebrity cameos and the plot basically revolving around a media circus involving Ryan and her husband, this so easily could descend into yet another example of name-brand recognition overtaking anything of narrative merit. Where this gets weird is the fact that this film treats that whole culture in the least cynical way possible. With the synthetic empire the Kardashians have built for themselves, the latest in a series of reality-TV-driven dynasties, celebrity culture and gossip in particular has and always be in vogue. I personally don’t see the use in the obsessive approaches tabloids take with the personal lives of famous people; I got enough shit in my life to worry about without needing to consider who is currently dating who.
Of course, what people tend to forget when getting swept up in that brand of journalism is that, behind the gloss, these are still people, not much different from anyone else. Latifah’s subplot involving her line of work in gossip reporting ends up showing what such business can do to a person’s self-worth, and Ryan and Stewart’s attempt to deal with their own issues show the real tribulations behind the glamour that most opportunistic paparazzos just love spinning into drama. Even if the effect is slightly dulled thanks to the appearance of not only Diddy but also his Cirroc drink brand, which shows up rather prominently throughout the film, this film’s take overall is rather refreshing and very welcome in these parts.

Self-empowerment fantasies on film have been kicking around for a long time by this point, bolstered in part by the ‘chick flick’ sub-genre that I have probably spent way too much time raging against in the past. However, despite its prevalence, there is a rather inescapable fact concerning it: The sub-genre is embarrassingly white. Films with predominantly black casts are still treated as niche properties, and outside of rare examples like Get Out that catch serious fire in the market, they don’t tend to get a lot of attention. Nothing says the antithesis of empowerment than largely being left out of the playing field that is all about strength of the self.
This is where the realism on display from our main group really starts to take form into something truly worthy. The shenanigans the women get into is relatively standard fare for these sorts of stories about wild nights of carefree debauchery fuelled by all things fermented, but that might actually be its best selling point. They are more than capable of outclassing the bigger Hangover rip-offs at their own game, and end up delivering some strong emotions in the process. Outside of their bickering, this group clearly loves one another and will always look out for each other, even if it means delivering less-than-ideal news. This reaches a peak with Ryan’s character arc, steadily evolving as the film goes on into a message about the strength of the single black woman and the pride that should be associated with it. Even with me being as far removed from that stance as it is possible to get as a pasty-as-fuck white suburban male, Hall’s performance combined with the build-up it’s given is really hard not to get invested in.

All in all, this is damn good and a possible sign that Hollywood is starting to learn from its mistakes. The cast is outstanding, the production is incredibly high-gloss despite the relatively small budget, and the writing nails pretty much everything that I’ve been itching to see in a purported ‘chick flick’ for a very long time. It’s funny and incredibly heartfelt, and its statements concerning self-empowerment and even celebrity culture land on very solid ground, resulting in a film that is definitely worth getting the gang together to check out. Hell, for as much as I ended up liking this, I’m willing to bet that it will strike an even better chord within its target demographic; do not let this one pass you by.

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