Meet Jo Koy. Described in his personal website’s bio section as “one of today’s premiere [sic] standup comics,” his best-known screen work may be his 140-plus appearances on the late-night talkshow Chelsea Lately. Despite a seemingly low-ish profile, he is now starring in the wide-release studio vehicle Easter Sunday, the golden-ticket gig daydreamed about by all joke-tellers. This is because Koy’s site wasn’t exaggerating his onstage success: he has sold out stadium shows months in advance across America, still without making much of a dent in the cultural mainstream. Like Sebastian Maniscalco – or in a more general sense, Yellowstone and The Big Bang Theory – he really is immensely popular, just not with the tastemaker class of media consumer acting as arbiters of what’s current and relevant.
The challenge of carrying a whole movie, put to an actor whose last credit was a bit part as Vladimir Lenin in 2019’s possibly nonexistent Anastasia: Once Upon a Time, goes a way toward explaining the overall vibe that this substandard product shouldn’t have passed Universal’s quality control. He appears visibly uncomfortable as alter ego Jo Valencia, grinning with his full count of blindingly white teeth every few seconds as if to reassure us that everything’s all right and we’re all having a good time, like a parent trying to calm a shrieking infant in an airport. And yet he’s right at home in a film that never rises past his level, meeting him on the low bar he’s set for himself and eventually beckoning him downward toward intriguing, unexpected forms of badness. What begins as a broad comedy pursuing the workable angle of a My Big Fat Filipino Easter, its cardinal sin topping out at mere corniness, slowly mutates into something more confused, incompetent and arrogant.
Jo Valencia must return to the Filipino enclave of Daly City, a hop and a skip south of San Francisco, to appease his lovably overbearing immigrant family. He’s a struggling no-name trying to make the jump to legitimate actor, vexed by his past gig as a beer-commercial sloganeer, just like in Party Down. He’s this close to clinching a network job, but they want him to do an accent he’d rather not, just like in Master of None. And the divorcee balances it all with caring for his kid (internet comic Brandon Wardell, reading his hackneyed lines in such a way as to convey an ironic remove from them), who is named Jo Jr and getting a C- in math, just like in the life of Koy’s real-world son.
We know that by the end of all this, the pair will have bonded and accepted that even though they may push our buttons, our loved ones are all we have. In a 96-minute movie, however, that still leaves a lot of room to fill. Koy, director Jay Chandrasekhar (who also literally phones in a supporting turn as Jo’s smarmy talent agent), and writers Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo break up the afternoon with a ludicrous subplot about Jo’s knucklehead cousin (Eugene Cordero, always a treat), a $15,000 debt and a scramble to unload a pair of legendary boxing gloves owned by the Filipino community’s apparent pride and joy, Manny Pacquiao. This occasions the most laugh-heavy scenes in the movie – a pair of detours to visit a fence played by the reliable Jimmy O Yang and then a celebrity buyer, though it also has a way of warping the plausibility of the down-to-earth segments of the script.
More than just killing time, Jo’s shenanigans seem geared to prove what a cool, great guy he is. There’s a hint of self-aggrandizement that grows more palpable as we learn that Jo can stunt-drive with the fastest and furiousest (a skill that goes unexplained), or punch a gangster out cold with a one-hit KO that Manny would approve of. In the handful of scenes that show Jo busting out his standup act to quell tensions at a church service or family get-together, the copious cutaway shots to applauding onlookers and roaring piped-in laughter confirm that he is indeed killing it. Koy’s impulse to have his way comes across most blatantly in the resolution with his son, which ends with the teen realizing that he should be more patient and understanding of his father’s workaholic absenteeism. Even the formulaic Jim Carrey pictures this plot schematic rips off knew how to do pat sentimentalism right.
The saving grace here should be the win for the Filipino community, commanding a big-screen moment with a cast of undervalued Asian stars. But they’re all short-changed by a hypocritical sense of heritage and pride. Jo makes a thing out of his reluctance to perform caricature for the amusement of whites, except that doing a funny auntie voice is the cornerstone of his live show and the snippets he recycles within the film. The Filipino experience is reduced to a halo-halo metaphor, mixed-up and harmonious and beautiful, a writerly device that sounds more offensive the more demographics one mentally applies it to. (“Being Italian is like a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs,” etc.) The joy of solidarity within a tight-knit ethnic group ultimately boils down to a karaoke rendition of I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas, a lunging attempt for lowest-common-denominator relatability disguised as cultural distinction. Founding member apl.de.ap may be Filipino American, but even so, that’s an explanation and not an excuse.