“If I will it, I can have it all.” So goes the million-dollar motto for Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall), the bestselling author who centers Malcolm D. Lee’s sprawling, women-gone-wild comedy “Girls Trip.” Ryan’s aspirational thinking is meant to motivate her faithful followers, but it seems as though Lee himself was similarly inspired.
Lee’s never had trouble crafting a confidently glossy film (we’ll pretend “Scary Movie 5” didn’t happen), although some of his endeavors (“Undercover Brother”) have been more memorable than others (“Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”). “Girls Trip,” a raucous ode to African-American sisterhood, may be his most open-hearted effort since 2005’s underappreciated “Roll Bounce.”
Much of the credit goes to the movie’s well-cast quartet of leads, who gather for a girls’ weekend when Ryan is hired to speak at the massive annual Essence Festival in New Orleans. It’s been years since Ryan saw her college friends, once known as the Flossy Posse. And time has definitely taken a toll.
Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), formerly up for anything, has become an anxious single mom. Journalism major Sasha (Queen Latifah) has been reduced to chasing sleazy tips for her gossip blog. And party girl Dina (Tiffany Haddish) is now … no, actually, Dina’s just as outrageous as she ever was.
As for Ryan, her marriage to former athlete Stewart (Mike Colter, “Luke Cage”) and her “having it all” public image are threatened when Sasha stumbles on an incriminating photo of Stewart and an amoral Instagram model (Deborah Ayorinde, in a thankless role). Ryan’s ambitious agent (a cartoonish Kate Walsh) goes into damage-control mode, but the posse has other ideas.
There are few surprises here, as the women move easily through the basic plot points a movie like this demands: they get together, get drunk, and get crazy. And by the end, a hungover enlightenment has been achieved. (“Rough Night,” which followed the same exact route, is still in theaters.) But that’s okay, because we’re in it for the ride, the company, and the pure pleasure of watching these women, and the actresses playing them, embrace an independence Hollywood doles out too grudgingly.
The characters are, admittedly, fairly two-dimensional, but the actors work hard to fill them out. Everyone gets her own moments, and it’s pretty entertaining to watch Queen Latifah and Pinkett Smith romancing inanimate objects after drinking too much absinthe. Hall, working with Lee for the fourth time, has just the right gravitas to carry the most serious role. But the movie really belongs to the comedically gifted Haddish (“Keanu”), in yet another potential breakout performance that ought to supercharge her career.
While the other women hit their beats in polished style, Haddish brings a seemingly impromptu vibe that raises the bar for each scene. No matter how ridiculous the setup, she jumps in with so much hilarious enthusiasm, we can’t help follow her wherever she goes. And be warned: she goes far enough that you will never stand underneath a zipline or look at a grapefruit the same way again.
Lee has often folded moral, political, or religious perspectives into strong ensemble comedies like “The Best Man” and “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” but he’s mostly content to sit back and let the ladies do their thing here. There are lessons learned, of course, but few judgements.
He shot the movie at an actual Essence Festival, and the background energy — including several concert scenes and a long list of cameos from real-life attendees like Ava DuVernay, Iyanla Vanzant, Estelle, and Mariah Carey — helps fill out the palpable sense of empowerment that cowriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver (“Barbershop: The Next Cut”) infuse throughout the script.
Lee, Barris and Oliver do take their characters to some pretty wild places. But they never stray too far from Ryan’s fallback maxim, the one she uses whenever things go off track: “I am strong. I am beautiful. I am powerful.”