The Big Easy–bound women are four friends from college (class of ’95), so tight that they gave themselves an enduring sobriquet: the Flossy Posse. Each pal is sketched out in the obligatory decade-spanning, coiffure-changing montage, with some biographies more detailed than others. Dina (Tiffany Haddish), the quartet’s most libidinous and short-fused member — “It’s chlamydia, y’all! That shit is treatable,” she rejoices to her devoted crew in a clinic lobby sometime during the Clinton administration” — has just been sacked from an unspecified office job after socking a co-worker for stealing her Go-Gurt. Divorced several years ago, Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) currently leads a sexless, virtuous life as a nurse and overly attached mom. Once a rising star in legacy media, Sasha (Queen Latifah) now runs a gossip site and dodges overdue bills. And Ryan (Regina Hall), the film’s occasional narrator and author of the best-seller You Can Have It All, is about to expand the already flourishing self-help brand she created with her charismatic ex-NFLer husband, Stewart (Mike Colter).
Speaking of brand: The Flossy Posse reunion in the Crescent City is occasioned by Ryan’s invitation to give the keynote address at Essence Fest, an annual music celebration, sponsored by the magazine, that’s been held in New Orleans since 1994. Much of Girls Trip was filmed at last summer’s event, and the egregious corporate synergy fatigues a little. Fleeting scenes of New Edition, Maxwell, MC Lyte, Mariah Carey and other WBLS staples onstage, not to mention other, nonsinging luminaries such as Ava DuVernay, clutter the movie, as does the incessant product placement of Ciroc (for which Sean Combs, who also appears here, coincidentally or not, serves as an actual brand ambassador). Why cut away to high-end vodka or a lyric or two of “Ascension” when it means less time with Haddish, the filthy, intransigent, furiously funny supernova of Girls Trip?
The venom with which Dina spits out “place of work,” a banal expression she mocks even further by putting it in spiky air quotes while she’s being fired, never loses its potency. Thrown out of a luxe NOLA hotel for brandishing a broken bottle at Stewart, whose infidelities with Simone (Deborah Ayorinde), an “Instagram ho” Dina has just learned about, the fiercely loyal friend does some IRL Yelping: “That place is haunted. A ghost tried to fuck me,” she warns passers-by outside the four-star lodging’s entrance, just one of a multitude of unhinged, X-rated scenarios that Haddish can make seem all too possible with her laser-precise timing and riotously indignant delivery.
Though Haddish’s character gobbles up the most jokes, her co-stars — two of them, anyway — also kill. With icy, annihilating elegance, Ryan schools her black-slang-abusing Caucasian agent (Kate Walsh); Pinkett Smith brings a limber appeal — and an always-game willingness for toilet humor — to Lisa’s predictable transformation from an uptight scold, bedecked in sex-repelling granny skirts, to young-stud magnet.
As for Queen Latifah, usually the brightest force in anything she’s in, the performer is strangely recessive here — a combination, perhaps, of a long-established star gallantly ceding the spotlight to Haddish’s ascendant cut-up and a patchily written part. While Dina and Lisa indulge in deeper levels of debauchery and Ryan negotiates both her business deals and her marriage, Sasha doesn’t do much more than hold a selfie stick up high and disparage TMZ.
The Queen still has terrific chemistry with Pinkett Smith, with whom she last co-starred in F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off (1996), featuring another all-distaff African-American foursome. That rightly worshipped action movie is affectionately, if strenuously, saluted here, as the Flossy Posse, sporting the wigs and sunglasses worn by Gray’s bank-robbing band, enters a dive bar. (For those who may not get the reference, more aid is on the way: Dina rallies her pals with “Come on, bitches. Let’s set it off.” Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah nod and smile in recognition.)
The acknowledgment is cute — but counterproductive. Across the room, the women spot Simone and her crew. There’s a brief dance battle (which I’m always a sucker for), followed by a nasty, prolonged melee, a tangle of female fists slugging female faces. The brawl is defiling, as is a segment in which Ryan seems to blame her biology for her spouse’s straying. Sparked by the shout-out to Set It Off in Lee’s movie, I thought of what those lawless women were fighting: a corrupt, racist system. In Girls Trip, a comedy about female camaraderie and uplift, the enemy that must be rooted out is another woman.