Malcolm D. Lee is nothing less than the blissfully vulgar Nancy Meyers of comedic fantasies aimed at black upper-middle-class Americans. Mixing the McMansion opulence-chasing aspects of The Best Man and its sequel with the ribaldry of Barbershop: The Next Cut and whichever Scary Movie entry he directed, and then chasing it with the smooth camaraderie that made Roll Bounce one of the truly under-heralded movies of the last dozen years, Girls Trip is an unexpectedly fizzy diversion. Especially given it could easily be boiled down to Set It Off meets The First Wives’ Club or Beyoncé’s Lemonade by way of The Hangover. Even if in the final analysis it’s the cinematic equivalent of flash paper, Lee’s unerring knack for working with ensembles turns the formulaic into something far more than the sum of its parts.
The Flossy Posse may have once ruled the school in the 1990s, but with the crew now hovering on the other side of 40 years old, priorities have changed. Ryan (Regina Hall) is on the cusp of becoming the next Oprah multi-threat, thanks in part to her very public chemistry with her strapping, ex-NFL-player husband. Sasha (Queen Latifah) graduated with two—count ’em—two degrees in journalism, and has written up Time magazine cover stories but now runs a flailing gossip blog. Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), the first to drop her wild college days and settle down, now struggles as a divorcée with two children, sharing a roof with her mother. And Dina (Tiffany Haddish) has finished her world tour of STD contraction in nothing flat, and doesn’t seem to be interested in doing anything other than repeating past successes in the future.
All four, so inseparable whenever the DJ would spin Chubb Rock, are decidedly on their own separate paths when Ryan gets an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the Essence Festival. Faster than you can say “10-drink minimum,” the quartet are climbing aboard a flight to New Orleans.
Girls Trip’s setup is trite, its episodic excursions into the comedy of mortification are templated far beyond the possibility of any true spontaneity, its musical digressions with New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love,” Maxwell’s “Ascension,” and Mase and Puff Daddy’s “Feel So Good” play shamelessly to the target demographic, and the film ultimately sacrifices pacing in favor of shoehorning in both humor and heart. Ryan’s business partnership with her husband reveals itself very early on as a prime example of not shitting where you eat, and thus the destination debauch reluctantly steps to the left in favor of a four-way orgy of self-actualization. Well, at least a three-way, with Haddish’s Dina retaining her chokehold on her own id with both hands pumping. (She assumes the Zach Galifianakis role in this clique, and milks it for every last drop, even when she’s stealing Auntie Angel’s “grapefruit method” video slurp for slurp. She steals the entire film too.)
And yet, even when the film starts embodying Ryan’s life-coach realness, you can never be mad at Girls Trip because of how unpretentiously Lee sets up his actors to enjoy their time together. If this isn’t by a long shot the best representation of the filmmaker’s crowd-pleasing instincts, at least it goes down easy. Easy like a Sunday-morning hangover.