You only need to watch comedian Jo Koy take the stage in his latest Netflix special (Jo Koy: Live from the LA Forum) to realize how central Filipino-ness is to his act. He’s the only comic able to insert the words “tabo” and “pekpek” into an LA act, have a universal audience get it, and be totally comfortable doing it.
Which makes Easter Sunday, Jo Koy’s first Pinoy-centric entry into Hollywood, all the more of a misfire.
Easter Sunday is a hot mess. But not the kind of hot mess that involves empanada, pancit canton and lechon served on a religious holiday. No, it’s the kind of hot mess that results from a script that’s not been fully slow-cooked, braised to perfection, and a premise that feels more 7-Eleven microwave burrito than satisfying sinigang.
(Caveat: This is an American reflecting on how Pinoy a Jo Koy project is, so take it with the appropriate measure of salt.)
In Easter Sunday, the half-Filipino standup comedian plays Joe Valencia, a struggling actor most famous for a beer commercial catchphrase who is trying to land a TV series role. The casting directors want him to bump his Filipino accent “up to 50 percent” to get the job, which leaves Joe in an existential crisis. He’s also dealing with a teenage son (Brandon Wardell) who doesn’t even seem one percent Filipino — hey, he doesn’t even know what halo-halo is! — and a Filipino mom (Lydia Gaston) who has the full accent but seems only about 10 years older than Jo Koy.
Respect to the popular comic who distills Filipino culture in his act in an inclusive way, but Easter Sunday misses the mark on so many levels. The jokes are as stale as an ube hopia left in a glove compartment for six months, and the script appears to be crafted by non-Filipinos (Ken Cheng, Kate Angelo), which may explain its parachute approach to things that should be very close to Jo Koy’s heart.
As in, Filipino touches are treated as throwaway gags, whether it’s his mom’s Sto. Niño statue, or her use of recycled Cool-Whip containers to make baon the kaldereta. These bits will be familiar to those who’ve already caught Jo Koy’s Netflix specials; here, they’re distilled into a less-than-compelling story about what it means to be kinda-sorta Filipino in America.
There are some funny moments that almost raise the stakes higher — Jo Koy is challenged to give an impromptu sermon during Easter Sunday service, and he rises to the occasion, calling for his mom and estranged aunt (Tia Carrere, a blast from Fil-Am past) to bury the hatchet. But most of the plot is driven by an annoying ethnic gangster stereotype (Asif Ali) who wants $40,000 back from Jo’s warmhearted but dim cousin Eugene (Fil-Am Eugene Cordero).
If you’re the kind of person who follows Fil-Am actor movements, you might guess midway through that, if Tia Carrere is at the party, Lou Diamond Phillips probably got an invite as well. He did, and shows up as a sleazier version of himself, a character called The Jeweler who wants to buy a certain pair of purloined boxing gloves from Jo Koy.
Whose gloves? You might hope that a cameo from the world-class boxer whom Jo Koy has joked about in his specials is in the offing, but alas, no. Jo Koy does have a number of funny friends, though, including Jimmy O. Yang (underused as an underground sneaker magnate) and Tiffany Haddish (overused in a one-joke role). Maybe he should hang out with Judd Apatow more.
Around the point Lou Diamond turns up, you might start to wonder if Rob Schneider will make an appearance as well. Schneider, you might recall, is the former SNL star with Pinoy roots who made oodles of money with movies like Deuce Bigalow and Hot Girls (and now declares SNL “dead,” a frequent pronouncement from former cast members). A comparison is instructive: Schneider never made Filipino-ness a central feature of his movies, though it was slyly alluded to (with references to his own Filipino mom); here, Jo Koy tries a more daring gambit: he wants Easter Sunday to radiate and overflow with Pinoy-ness like a warm patchouli bath. He insists on the Filipino angle. And yet, Easter Sunday doesn’t quite deliver. It doesn’t go full Pinoy.
Jo Koy at least has his heart in the right place. Easter Sunday clearly wants to bust through movie screens to bring Filipino culture to a crossover audience.
Yes, there are bits about mixing up p’s and f’s, and an auntie who sniffs Joe Jr.’s cheeks when she kisses him, and a copy of the Daly City Balita being waved around, but you feel like this adobo could have sat in the cooker a bit longer to come up with some fresh Pinoy insights. You can almost feel somebody — not Jo Koy, perhaps, but somebody — pulling back the reins on the true Fil-Am experience. This is odd, considering Steven Spielberg’s production company was behind Easter Sunday. It ends up feeling as suburban-American as E.T., but without the magic.
What it does have to offer is Jo Koy’s own comic touch: he’s good playing a dad who wants his son to have some sense of Filipino traditions, which involve driving four hours from LA to Daly City to have an Easter Sunday lunch and dinner that has some pretty authentic-looking Pinoy dishes on the table. (Though I would suggest that the two-minute scene in Ned’s Lola’s sala in Spider-Man: No Way Home has way more immersive Pinoy details.) And of course, there is a karaoke scene: this involves bringing in another Pinoy signifier, Black-Eyed Peas’ Apl.de.ap, at least on the soundtrack. (Strangely, the karaoke scene doesn’t involve Eva Noblezada, an actual Fil-Am singer who plays Joe’s son’s girlfriend.)
Jo Koy at least has his heart in the right place. Easter Sunday clearly wants to bust through movie screens to bring Filipino culture to a crossover audience. In his latest standup special, he speaks warmly and sincerely about how much his Filipino mother’s love (and accent) means to him; about how close he is to his son. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come through in a script that feels mailed in after being fed through a Chinese translator app. Or, as his mother might say: “Maybe you should have tried a little harder, Jo-SEP!”
* * *
Showing on Amazon Prime.