‘Girls Trip’ is nasty, but the good kind of nasty.
Sometimes movies work best when the audience leaves them behind. A good scary movie could have you closing your eyes, gripping the armrests. A heartbreaking romance could leave you a blubbery heap, more concerned with not hiccup-snorting any snot so the people sitting around you can enjoy their own cry. Finally, in the case of Girls Trip, the movie may have your audience laughing so hard that the few minutes post-joke are completely inaudible. When a movie’s done its job, its effect leaves the screen, the light, and the sound behind and infects its audience like a good beat or a standup comic’s delivery. We’re all in sync with the rhythm. Girls Trip is especially successful, aside from a few structural quibbles and tonal jumps, because of its implausible balanced blend of raunchiness and respect when it comes to its subject matter: black women in America.
The women in question, the ones on this Trip you’ve heard so much about, are four college friends who’ve grown apart. Some get more backstory than others in the long opening introductory scenes, but they all start off like most generic comedy characters, with barely a trait apiece. Ryan (Regina Hall) is the group’s alpha, the center of attention who’s turned that spotlight into a lifestyle empire with her beefy husband Stewart (Mike Colter). Sasha (Queen Latifah) is the all-too-relatable broke journalist that fell down the professional ladder into a celeb-busting gossip blog. Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is the buzzkill mother of two and Dina (Tiffany Haddish) is the wild card. Haddish is also the film’s trump card, but we’ll come back to her later. These friends (members of the “Flossy Posse”) tag along with Ryan to New Orleans where she’s to be the keynote speaker at Essence Fest.
The film is remarkable for its willingness and ability to flaunt its generic premise and go to far stranger, more empowering places than its simple setup might suggest, but it’s also (sadly) remarkable for being a movie with more than one main character that’s a black woman. Out of all the movies that’ve come out so far this year in wide release – and I might’ve missed some, but I don’t think I did – I only found four examples of movies that were even close to that criteria. Beauty and the Beast technically had Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Audra McDonald, but they were literally furniture. The Lego Batman Movie had the voices of Rosario Dawson and Mariah Carey, but Carey appeared in one scene. Also, they were Legos. In fact, aside from the abysmal Tupac biopic (whose stance towards women, in general, is iffy at best), Spider-Man: Homecoming is the only other movie this year so far to star two black women.
I say all this not to preach, though I’d be following in the film’s solidly-earned footsteps if I did, to emphasize the importance of the creative team harnessing its actresses. These actresses, all near forty and neither well-behaved high schoolers nor animated window-dressing, represent an audience that just doesn’t get to see itself. Especially acting up like this. The Catholic reverie inherent in the Louisiana setting infects everyone with a bit of the carnivalesque. Historically, this is the time for good folks to act a fool. Rampant, proud sexuality? Bring it on. Weird, gross behavior? A must. This is an old idea put to modern perfection as each actress weaves her own wild night in with her posse-mates.
As the weekend unfolds (including a great turn by the too-pretty-to-be-good Colter) leading up to Ryan’s speech, the friends’ lives open and complicate before us. Each is given ample opportunity for great performances and all deliver, especially Hall’s podium-pounding speech or Smith’s wry sexual corruption. Latifah gets fewer big comic moments, but handles much of the unforgiving career-oriented subplot well, despite its tedium. All give nuance when needed and embrace the excess when it comes their way.
When you hear excess, think Dina because the real star of the show is Haddish. She bounces around the frame, exploding often in long, obscene tirades like a flashbulb blinding the audience from anything but her bright light. She’s not a mean clown or a dislikeable one, but the perfect blend of nasty and amiable that situates her as the best friend that most disappoints your grandmother. Her performance is overwhelming but doesn’t overwhelm the balance on-screen, playing up her three straight women in different ways with either her precise rambling (a very hard thing to do on-screen) or her physical shenanigans – one of which replicates an infamous citrusy YouTube video. If the Academy respected controlled comic chaos like it should, Haddish would have a Supporting Actress Oscar all wrapped up.
Some of this is thanks to the scripting of Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver and some to director Malcolm D. Lee. Directors have to conduct their actors like even the best musicians need cues, and those actors have a harder time if their words read false. The jokes land and the friendship lands, though some drama pushing the film forward feels transparently connective. Lee holds the ship steady and lingers in the comedy when needed, but he too gets caught up in the melodrama interspersed throughout. This manifests in dopey framing decisions or repetitive camera movements, like the camera zooming by a close-up over and over every time we cut back to Hall giving a speech. It’s a nauseating sensation like you’re driving past them while nothing physically moves at all.
But the reason Girls Trip is worth some of its more mediocre trappings comes wrapped up neatly in the speech Lee insists on panning past. This is a film in which every frame and every scene celebrates the complexity of its characters — celebrates black women. A brass band playing on Bourbon Street doesn’t feel right until our quartet moves in, the framing of the scene foregrounding the women as the obvious musical muses. Each moment humanizes and appreciates. Even if they’re peeing themselves or starting bar fights. No, especially if they’re peeing themselves or starting bar fights. It calls out white women for talking like black women. It calls out white men for being, well, dipshits. It calls out black men for disrespecting black women. It is a movie that revels in its debauchery, yet educates without trying and inspires within an R-rating. Girls Trip will have your theater screaming, but its impact will reach far beyond its hilarious shock value.