If you see movies for a living, it’s impossible to not see Girls Trip in the context of what’s shaping up to be a crisis of sorts for mainstream studio comedies. As a generation’s comedic sensibility finds its locus on the internet, the lumbering studio film machine can’t seem to keep up. Comedy is a sort of innovation, and something conceived of four years ago that’s gone through 17 rewrites and months of post-production can’t help but feel dated. Maybe, the thinking goes, films like Rough Night, The House, and CHiPs are failing not on their own merits, but because mid-budget studio releases just won’t be where we get our comedy going forward.
Girls Trip shoots this excuse down so effortlessly that it’s almost embarrassing. It’s a shiny, female-dominated hard-R comedy starring at least two big-name stars (and one future household name, if there’s any justice in the world) that somehow feels as fast and loose as an impromptu viral video, and it would feel like a modern miracle if it wasn’t so busy being, well, funny. Like Bridesmaids, it makes no more promises than an actual night out: These people will be there, and the goal is to have a good time. And while it may not quite have the undergirding pathos of the former, Girls Trip is a very good time.
The titular trip is a reunion of sorts for a quartet of college friends, and we begin with an introduction to the “Flossy Posse,” flashing between their ’90s heyday and their less-than-ideal present. There’s Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), a perfect wife and mother turned single mom; Sasha (Queen Latifah), a journalist turned broke gossip blogger; and Dina (Tiffany Haddish), a raucous party girl who’s recently lost her job, not that she seems to realize or care. The only one who seems to have come out of her 30s unscathed is Ryan (Regina Hall), a lifestyle guru married to a hot athlete named Stewart (Mike Colter) and the author of a best-selling book entitled You Can Have It All. Clearly, someone’s being set up for a comeuppance via the titular getaway to New Orleans, where all four women will attend the Essence Festival, and where Ryan will deliver a pivotal keynote speech inevitably centering on what she learned from her Girls on their wild Trip. If this table-setting is the part of Girls Trip that drags most, you come to appreciate it in hindsight. The film begins and ends in an ocean of clichés, but it’s all comfort coating for the exuberantly free-form filling.
Everyone has their goals: Sasha needs to score that one golden scoop that will keep her blog from going under, Lisa needs to break a two-year sexual dry spell, Dina needs to maintain a steady BAC greater than .1 percent. And Ryan and her husband need to land a zillion-dollar licensing deal for their #brand, which is imperiled by a leaked photo of Stewart engaged in some face-sucking with an “Instagram model.” But refreshingly, there’s not really one straight woman among the four leads. Instead, they hand off that role depending on the situation, which means each woman is on her own rollercoaster of conservatism and debauchery. Every time someone does something out of her comfort zone — fool around with a guy half her age, get “white-boy wasted” and ride a swing across Bourbon Street — we share in their giddy delight. When Latifah takes her swing ride, she goes from terrified to elated, and by the time she reaches the other side she’s grinding on the attendant who catches her, all in the space of a few seconds. It feels completely spontaneous, and yet it’s grounded in something organic. The fun of being around these women is not in seeing them humiliated by horrible comedic circumstances, but in seeing them dive into each adventure with awkward exuberance.
And nobody dives more than Haddish, the clear and undeniable breakout star of the film. From the moment she methodically undoes her hoop earrings, smashes a wine bottle, and launches herself at Stewart in a fancy hotel lobby, the earrings never really come back on. You cannot take your eyes off Haddish when she’s onscreen. There’s a twinkle in her eye as she takes in her surroundings, foreshadowing whatever sublimely deranged thing she’ll do or say next, whether it’s her baroque plan to punish Stewart for his infidelity, or enthusiastically servicing a banana in a bit of physical comedy so off-the-charts raunchy and ridiculous I was seeing stars. It’s hard to recall such a revelatory comedic performance from a still relatively unknown actor, but the effect is similar to some of Kate McKinnon’s recent film work. There’s a sweetness and intense loyalty to Dina that is brought all the way home by the end of the film, which makes the outsized bits all the more transcendent.
A great deal of credit goes to the writers, led by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, for creating the space for Haddish and the rest of the cast to get weird. But there’s a chemistry and harmony between the four leads that can’t really be written, and a kind of guileless ego-free spirit to Malcolm D. Lee’s direction that keeps things perpetually moving. That’s a deceptively high bar of difficulty for a comedy of this scale to pull off, but Girls Trip makes it look easy. By the time the inevitable dance-off scene comes around in the film’s second half, you’re laughing not because the choreography is silly, but because everyone is so goddamn committed, and Hall is rocking a purple wig like she was born in one.