Jo Koy Leaps From the Stage to the Screen with Easter Sunday

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

The list of standup comedians who successfully made the jump to movies is long and distinguished. From George Burns to Jamie Foxx and many in between, you will find Oscar winners and lead actors who became some of the biggest box office earners of their respective eras. Alas, for every icon like Robin Williams or Steve Martin, there are the Dane Cook and Tom Green flash-in-the-pan failures. The next humorist on the launching pad is Jo Koy starring in Easter Sunday with its prime summer box office placement.

Jo Koy is taking the easiest route possible with his first leading role. He’s leaning to the autobiographical. Koy plays Joe Valencia, a struggling standup comedian and father to a teenage son, Joe Jr. (TV actor Brandon Wardell). Tally those as the first two traits of many in Easter Sunday, right down to the exact Joe Jr. naming, that match Jo Koy in real life. When your “character” is essentially “you,” the bar is not set very high whatsoever for performance challenges.

If you dig, for a moment, back into the early resumes of the most successful crossover comedy stars, you’ll notice that nearly all of the greats never started, or ever went at all, autobiographical in their careers. Richard Pryor broke in with Lady Sings the Blues. Eddie Murphy had 48 Hrs. Whoopi Goldberg wowed in The Color Purple. The examples are endless. They flourished because the filmmakers and the movies they made borrowed and employed the respective jokester’s chops, not their actual persona. It was more about “what” they could do more than “who” they were.

A man stands with his hands on his hips in a living room.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Jo Koy and Universal Pictures are banking on the opposite of that trend with Easter Sunday. They are putting trust in Jo Koy’s unique multiracial journey being the greater entertaining draw than his comedy skills alone. For those unfamiliar with Koy’s standup persona, he is quite proud of the immigrant Filipino heritage from his mother’s side and how it flies against his integrated American self. Jo’s mother and an ever-present culture clash are the sources of many of his stage stories. Easter Sunday takes those yukked-up yarns and stitches them into a holiday farce.

Adopted Los Angeleno Joe Valencia has been living off the popularity of being the face of a Budweiser Zero ad campaign and auditioning for a supporting role in a network TV pilot. He would win the job in a heartbeat if he would agree to do a Filipino accent. With admirable uprightness, Joe refuses to pander in that direction, much to the annoyed chagrin of his agent Nick (Easter Sunday’s director and Broken Lizard comedy troupe veteran Jay Chandrasekhar). Back home in Daly City, California, the largest city in the lower 48 states with a majority Asian population (a third of it Filipino), Joe is the brag-worthy success of his family and the entire community.

A mother points with a laugh at her son in the kitchen.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Family is precisely what pulls Joe out of L.A. for the blockbuster spring Catholic event that is the film’s title. This road trip with Joe, Jr. begrudgingly cuts into his time trying to land that TV audition. He comes home to find his mother Susan (Lydia Gaston) warring with her sister Theresa (Tia Carrere of Wayne’s World), his cousin Eugene (Eugene Cordero of Loki) blowing the food truck seed money he loaned him, and plate after plate of delicious ethnic food served with a side order of guilt as to why he can’t be around more often.

True of any demographic you spin the wheel and land on, messy dysfunctional families are universal. The generic tropes of disappointment, strife, oddity, hierarchy, hardship, and togetherness are all tinted here by the dominant Filipino perspective and Jo Koy’s personalized experience. Eugene drops the line more than once of “family is mad complicated.” That is indeed the way this particular family (and this movie) addresses all their seen and unseen elephants in the room. One pleasant tangent of Easter Sunday that adds a wrinkle in this area is Joe Jr. becoming smitten with a plucky Daly City local named Ruth, played by Eva Noblezada of Yellow Rose. Wardell and Noblezada share arguably the most wholesome scenes in the movie.

A gathered family laughs together at a picnic.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

As his family’s highest achiever, Joe is expected to bring his magic home to navigate and cure all the present problems and new ones that arise in time for Sunday’s dinner. In the second and third acts, screenwriters Kate Angelo (Sex Tape) and Ken Cheng (TV’s Sin City Saints) construe a silly day of nonsensical pratfalls. Including dodging wannabe crime bosses and the long arm of the law (embodied by WandaVision’s Asif Ali and the cameo explosion that is Tiffany Haddish), these little hurdles give Jo Koy’s charisma something to react to in playing himself critiquing his given career and family situations. Some try to up the pressure while others, like grabbing the open pulpit mic and putting on a show in the middle of mass, are contrived and too easy.

Again, if you know Jo Koy’s schtick, Easter Sunday reheats much of the sizzle of his stage act to a tepid PG-13 temperature. Koy knows what gets him laughs, and it’s playing fast and loose with the self-deprecating humor that comes out of his Hollywood exodus from his humble upbringing. Going in that direction, the movie was bound to tiptoe through what ethnic stereotypes, as deemed by him of course, are permissible, debunked, or reinforced. Koy boastfully perpetuates some bad behaviors while chastising others. That comedic selectivity creates a bit of double-talk.

A police officer points at a man she recognizes in a car.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

While Jo Koy and Chandrasekhar are amiable enough to keep the content inclusive, newbies to Filipino quirks may misread what and why something is the butt of a joke. They’re not going to laugh like those in the know or, more appropriately, those in the family. What was supposed to introduce and celebrate an under-represented culture may set it back a little bit too, in the name of trying to gain popularity. The same result may come to Easter Sunday and its star. The cursory introduction is now out of the way. Next time, let’s see Jo Koy play someone other than himself and see if he can unleash true chops.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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