In ‘Easter Sunday’ Jo Koy Doesn’t Shine As Much As We Hoped

The well-meaning studio comedy unfortunately flattens Filipino identity to a checklist

In modern discourse, words like “visibility” and “opportunity” conjure immediate stakes, as if the scramble to be represented on-screen for perpetuity rests on individual films. There is, perhaps, some nugget of emotional truth to that axiom; callous financial decision-making in Hollywood often rests on an algorithmic outlook, and in the mad dash to be seen, singular stories become make-or-break battlegrounds, no matter how simple or innocuous they may be. Easter Sunday is tailor-made for this climate—unfortunately, to its detriment.

Helmed by Super Troopers director Jay Chandrasekhar, and co-written by Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo, the Universal Studios release follows down-on-his-luck LA comedian Joe Valencia (Jo Koy). Joe is up for a role in a major TV pilot that demands he put on a mocking Filipino accent—the film is, in this small way, about visibility and opportunity—but his family commitments could prove to be a hurdle. His callback audition coincides with a school meeting about his teenage son, Joseph Jr. (or “Junior,” played by Brandon Wardell), and the network is set to make its decision on Easter weekend, when he and Junior are scheduled to take a road trip to the Bay Area to visit their Filipino family. Shenanigans ensue, as a litany of colorful characters and customs are introduced one at a time, including lavish lunches and dinners hosted by Joe’s overbearing immigrant mother Susan (Lydia Gaston) and her haughty sister Theresa (Tia Carrere), whose strained relationship Joe hopes to mend.

However, the central problem with Easter Sunday is that it unfolds mechanically at every turn. Chandrasekhar has little eye for staging beyond the barely-functional, with isolated closeups and haphazard group shots that neither capture interpersonal dynamics, nor draw the eye to any element in particular. Ironically, you could say the film feels algorithmic in the process; each cut is dictated by the beginning or end of a complete sentence, rather than emotions or conversational rhythms. The result is little more than a disconnected, semi-improvised rundown of Filipino American Culture 101, with people speaking in overly detailed sentences meant to explain each facet of their identity to no one in particular. It’s sprinkled with a few highlight comedic cameos (Tiffany Haddish, Jimmy O. Yang, and a major one best left unspoiled), but it only has a handful of characters with real depth or idiosyncrasy, like Joe’s conspiratorial, knife-wielding tito Arthur, played by Rodney To. Everyone else, for the most part, remains trapped by their prescribed functions, as exposition devices for various quirks and traditions. At first, hearing Filipino characters refer to their titos and titas is a refreshing change in Hollywood’s typical makeup, but despite the litany of familiar dialogue and cultural references, few of  the aforementioned family members feel fully-formed, or like they have actual pasts beyond what they reveal in words. Little of the film’s humor, therefore, stems from who they are as individuals; apart from the eccentric Arthur, you could swap most of their lines without losing very much.  

Without mincing words: it’s difficult to sit through, engendering little more than sympathy for how sweet and well-meaning it seems to be. Despite these pure intentions, it’s not about anyone or anything in particular, except for the broad idea of a Filipino family, as it might fit conceptually within the tapestry of mainstream American understanding, or lack thereof. Joe has a sister, Regina (Elena Juatco), a nurse who introduces herself in the context of having achieved her mother’s professional dreams while Joe is still struggling, before she instantly disappears for nearly the entire movie. She exists not as a person, but as a fleeting, didactic symbol of rigid cultural expectations. Even as a story of these expectations, and the way Joe’s mother seems to favor his wayward cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero), there’s a rigidity to the very few times the film actually touches on this subject as anything more than a minor background detail. For all of Koy’s strengths as a stand-up comic, whose routines are focused on the broad strokes of Filipino and Asian American culture, he has a long way to go as an actor capable of capturing the nuances therein. His singular, half-smiling expression works for his welcoming stage persona, but it kneecaps his character here, given that Joe is present in practically every scene, but is unable to embody or engage with the story’s underlying emotions, and its themes about being torn between work and family.

Even the few chuckle-worthy bits the movie has—courtesy of Chandrasekhar himself, as Joe’s agent, Nick—get very quickly run into the ground through repetition. Every conversation is sped through at a hundred miles an hour; the characters are rarely afforded the chance to reflect or react. A subplot about Eugene’s ill-conceived exploits, as a taco truck entrepreneur working with an investment from Joe, quickly spirals into a potentially interesting crime-comedy of errors, centering a group of amusing Indian American gangsters (led by Asif Ali’s Dev Deluxe) and a pair of stolen boxing gloves belonging to Manny Pacquiao. But while this detour shines a light on how Pacquiao (and other Filipino success stories) are latched onto and worshiped by diaspora communities, the caper serves only to delay the inevitable and flimsy family reconciliations between the various titas, of which Joe is inexplicably the center. 

The film rarely gets to the heart of who Joe is, and why he is (beyond one childhood story about his mother), and it seldom has a real perspective on his place as a Filipino American comic struggling to be seen—other than, once again, through the broad strokes of a TV job being just out of reach thanks to racist structures. There’s no real psychology to Joe, no aspect of his behavior or specificity of his experience that would justify any of his snarky responses to his family, in order to make his interactions funnier (or at least, more well-rounded). There is only Joe as an idea: a filtered version of Koy himself, whose experiences are reduced to the continuum of his work as a stage performer walking a specific cultural line.  

When Joe speaks at church, he breaks out into an extended stand-up routine, which goes on for ages without much humor or insight. When he easily finds the moral center of a given conversation or scenario, her sermonizes in platitudes, and when he has realizations about his life or his selfishness, these come about as convenient lessons, conveyed through dialogue alone—or worse yet, through unearned victories thrown his way—rather than through the comedy of rigorous challenges, and of people being placed in awkward and difficult situations that force them to take unexpected action.

This lack of internality extends to most of the other characters, especially Junior, who, like the actor playing him, is biracial and white-passing. Despite the film nominally being about accepting family—and despite it featuring stray lines of dialogue where characters discuss Junior’s whiteness and Americanness in Tagalog, which he doesn’t speak—the story fails to capitalize on these threads. Junior, who carries his film photography camera on the trip for a school assignment on depth and perspective, is afforded very little of either, even once his story takes a hard left-turn towards a paint-by-numbers romance with a Filipina girl named Tala (Eva Noblezada). Not once, beyond other characters pointing out Junior’s foreignness to their culture, does his story meaningfully intersect with the notion of being thrown headfirst into the charged drama of a family to which he’s perceived as at least a partial outsider. He’s a cipher. His is a story of race where race practically doesn’t matter, and in Easter Sunday, place doesn’t matter very much either. It unfolds in Daly City, a Filipino enclave, but it has little sense of geography, atmosphere, or tangibility, given how quickly and thoughtlessly its images fly by. 

Despite these pure intentions, it’s not about anyone or anything in particular, except for the broad idea of a Filipino family, as it might fit conceptually within the tapestry of mainstream American understanding, or lack thereof.

Strangest of all, the film is unable to reconcile its basic premise with the notions of representation at its core. Joe refuses to put on a Filipino accent for the network executives—because, we’re led to assume, it’s a racist request—but he has no problem using this same accent to poke fun at his family throughout the movie, even before a crowd of strangers. His objections are in-name-only from a story standpoint, thus manufacturing drama where little exists (and where an intriguing dramatic contradiction could be mined for laughs, but isn’t). No element of Filipino culture, of Asian-ness, or Asian American-ness, ever remains central to the story long enough to matter to the characters, despite their dialogue constantly hinging on their cultural identities. It’s a rigmarole. An accidental farce that devolves into an SNL sketch version of a complicated family dinner, with truncated stories, caricatured traits, and plenty of dead air without much laughter. The Valencias may as well turn to the camera and begin listing their favorite recipes and celebrities. The educational effect would be largely the same—the film is packed to the gills with extended references to Filipino and “Fil-Am” culture, from halo-halo to Lou Diamond Phillips—but there would at least be no need to pretend that Easter Sunday has anything more to say.

It’s “representation” in the most basic and artless way. The characters express ideas that may be meaningful in real life—and may even be meaningful for Filipino viewers to hear on-screen for the first time in a Hollywood film—but ideas which, in the movie, add up to little more than a checklist of all the superficial things that make up a diaspora. At the end of the day, culture and family are not about foods, languages, and traditions in and of themselves, but the communal aspects of these hallmarks, the connections they forge and the memories they conjure. They have weight and consequence, and even comedic implications when they inform the way people behave, and the wedges that form between them. In Easter Sunday, all these otherwise meaningful concepts are flattened into the cultural comedy equivalent of an obscure Marvel cameo or a Family Guy cutaway gag, where the mere act of recognition is the main point, and the only point, emotional context be damned. 

Published on August 4, 2022

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter