Move over, Tyler Perry. Let “Girls Trip” director Malcolm D. Lee show you how it’s done. In what could easily prove to be the summer’s word-of-mouth comedy sensation, Lee sends four black women — AKA the “Flossy Posse” — on a long-overdue weekend getaway, as “Madea’s Class Reunion” meets “The Hangover” for a raunchy mix of empowerment and intoxication at Essence Fest, New Orleans. Get ready for girl fighting, male nudity, multiple self-help lessons, an impromptu prayer session and not one but two musical numbers — all of it so consistently outrageous that audiences shouldn’t even miss the absence of a cross-dressing black lady.
Whereas Perry’s work serves mostly as counter-programming “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” appealing to those who typically feel more comfortable going to church than going to the movies, “Girls Trip” has something for everyone — provided that they’re old enough to see a hard-R-rated comedy, and not so easily offended that an explicit demonstration of the so-called “grapefruit technique” would send them running for the exits. The movie’s equal-opportunity irreverence makes for a welcome addition to the bachelor-party genre, so often aimed at the frat-boy crowds. As Queen Latifah, who plays one of the Flossy Posse foursome, might say of the status quo, “That’s some white-boy shit right there” — whereas these girls are here to mix up the formula.
When bestselling author Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall, a veteran of Lee’s “The Best Man” movies) is invited to give a keynote speech at Essence Fest, she uses the opportunity to reunite her gang of college friends, whom she hasn’t seen in five years. Like liberated “Sex and the City” types, these ladies represent different facets of the female experience, from divorced single mom Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) to the aggressively sexual Dina (scene-stealing newcomer Tiffany Haddish). Ryan also hopes that the reunion will give her a chance to bury the hatchet with Sasha (Latifah), who launched a blog peddling celebrity gossip after a joint business venture fell through a few years back.
Like a Michelle Obama-elegant version of Oprah Winfrey, Ryan has published a book called “You Can Have It All,” pointing to her marriage to football star Stewart (Mike Colter) as evidence that she’s living the dream. But Ryan’s longtime girlfriends have known her long enough to see through the act, and while they’re more than happy to join her in New Orleans for the weekend, they’re not about to sit idly by while the unfaithful Stewart makes a fool of their best friend. Taking a page from the Perry playbook, much of “Girls Trip’s” personal drama centers on infidelity, faith (more in oneself than in a higher power) and doing right by one’s sisters — and though they may sometimes disagree (make that “almost constantly”), these girls always have one another’s backs.
As an example, take the wild zip-line scene, in which Lisa, whose bladder is full to the point of bursting, gets stuck dangling midway across Bourbon Street. You don’t need to have seen the trailer to guess what happens next: Look out below! And yet, unlike so many ad campaigns, in which the preview spoils the best parts of the movie, “Girls Trip” is just getting started, expanding upon the joke in a way that’s not just wet-yourself funny, but poignant to boot — because the situation could have ended very badly for Lisa, but instead offers the perfect opportunity for one of her gal pals to come to the rescue.
Not all the jokes are as effective as that one — a sausage-tasting confrontation with Stewart’s Instagram-star girlfriend, played by Deborah Ayorinde, fizzles when it’s meant to convince an important sponsor (Lara Grice, as the movie’s grimacing white gatekeeper) — although “Girls Trip” rivals even “Bridesmaids” in its ability to keep the comic situations coming. Add to that a series of legitimately steamy moments with the likes of Kofi Siriboe (as a well-endowed college kid with a thing for Lisa), Larenz Tate (as Ryan’s almost-too-perfect old flame) and Sean “Diddy” Combs (as himself).
When it comes to Hollywood studio comedies, most of the time, we’re lucky to get one unforgettable set piece, whereas “Girls Trip” screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver deliver at least half a dozen. And rather than simply letting an effective joke stand, they double down, milking it for all it’s worth. Case in point, Dina doesn’t just explain “grapefruiting,” but vigorously demonstrates how it’s done, putting even viral-star sex adviser Auntie Angel’s viral video to shame. And before the movie’s over, we get to see how such a trick could go hilariously wrong.
Barris (creator of ABC sitcom “Black-ish”) and Oliver (with whom he co-wrote “Barbershop: The Next Cut”) are masters of the callback, finding unexpected ways to circle back and built upon earlier jokes — and from the look of things, the entire film has been given a thorough punch-up, as funny lines keep coming, even when characters’ mouths aren’t moving (a clear sign of ADR, or “additional dialogue recording,” where the filmmakers go in and loop new lines to make the movie better). In this case, it works like a charm, especially with Haddish’s character, a relative newcomer who nearly runs away with the movie — the way Melissa McCarthy all but stole “Bridesmaids.”
Whether smashing a wine bottle to confront Ryan’s no-good husband or going on about smuggling drugs in her “booty hole,” Haddish has an irrepressible, unfiltered quality that’s sweetened by the fact she’s by far the most loyal member of the group. She’s also a uniquely black character, and that’s every bit as important to the movie’s affirmational portrayal of African-American women as the way that the three other characters represent more colorblind ideas of success. Dina’s greatest asset is how she holds true to herself, and that in turn motivates her friends to follow suit.