Support the Girls (2018)

There aren’t many moments of tranquil beauty to be found in Support the Girls, because there isn’t much peace or beauty to be found in the service industry environment it depicts. The film is mostly relegated to the greyed-out concrete of Texan strip malls & interstate highways. When Regina Hall’s stressed-out restaurant manager finds a rare moment of Zen in the back alley behind her workplace, it manifests as a single migrant bird & a few scraggly bushes, a small glimpse of Nature that’s mostly drowned out by an endless sea of concrete & the constant background hum of passing cars. Mostly detailing a single disastrous day in the service industry, the stakes of the film are relatively small, but director Andrew Bujalski paints an impressively bleak picture anyway just by emphasizing the ugly blandness of the environment. There’s no need to push for more. The punishing, unnatural dullness of restaurant work in suburban Texas is enough dramatic tension to make Support the Girls a devastating watch, and to offer vital counterbalance to the film’s anguished sense of forced merriment.

It’s through that dwelling on punishing mediocrity that Support the Girls offers a damning vision of corporate world capitalism in a Texas-sized microcosm. The mundane details of its cookie-cutter service industry environment gave me vivid, unwanted flashbacks to working low-level back-of-the-house jobs at corporate restaurants I’d never personally patron, mostly to put myself through college. There’s an added layer of indignity here as the business in question is a “breastaurant,” which transforms waiting tables into a light form of sex work. Support the Girls isn’t quite the prostitution-as-microcosm-capitalism political screed that Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls is, but it’s not far off either. The wait staff of the fictional Double Whammies sports bar (a low-level Hooters knockoff) not only live in the grimmest version of concrete Texas mundanity; they also have to sexually stroke the egos of their macho, cheap beer-swilling customers. They’re part waitress, part stripper – which often blurs the boundaries of acceptable behavior from their patrons. Like all restaurant work, the only thing that gets them through is a sense of community as a crew, but capitalism has a way of souring & weaponizing even that consolation against them.

Regina Hall’s physically & emotionally overworked breastaurant manager is our window into this grim world. She’s both a leader & a healer for the girls on her staff and, against her best intentions, a tool of the enemy. Hall often finds herself emphasizing that “We are a family” to her employees, then using that sense of camaraderie & familial obligation to subtly apply pressure for them to do things beyond their normal expected workload, just to survive the day. As much as the team can come together for a shared hatred of the breastaurant’s racist, childish owner, Hall often becomes an extension of his awful will, to no one else’s gain. It’s the greatest tragedy of the film, as she means to do well by her girls, but the hierarchy is set up to make that impossible. The harshly bright lighting & sardonic humor of Support the Girls sets expectations for a Waiting-style broad comedy about the archetypal caricatures of the service industry, but Bujalski delivers something more subtly political & inherently tragic: a character study of a well-meaning capitalist victim who unwittingly becomes a tool for their own exploitation, with no alternative path.

There are plenty of broad service industry caricatures swarming around Regina Hall in this picture to distract from its true, grim nature. Haley Lu Richardson’s flighty firecracker with bottomless Employee of the Month energy particularly feels like she stumbled in from the set of an entirely different kind of comedy. The tragedy of Regina Hall’s goodwill being perverted as a tool for exploitation is much more difficult to detect than those flashes of broad humor. You can easily see it in the oppressive blandness of her environment, though. Wide shots frequently expand the frame just to capture the soul-crushing ugliness of her world: electrical outlets, stained drywall, interstate loops—an endless, monochromatic concrete Hell. There are plenty of momentary laughs to be found inside this bleak Texan prison, but being sentenced to a life within these confines ultimately feels joyless & without hope—an honest depiction of life-long restaurant work.

-Brandon Ledet

Girls Trip (2017)

In a summer when many comedies fell flat & promptly disappeared, Girls Trip excelled as a surprise runaway success lingering in theaters for months longer than its closest competition (Rough Night, Fun Mom Dinner, etc.). It’s not at all difficult to see why the film would carry a wide appeal & resulting financial success. As a star-studded broad comedy (featuring heavy hitters Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Queen Latifah among pop music celebrity cameos from performers like P. Diddy & Estelle) that caters directly to black audiences, Girls Trip taps directly into a criminally underserved market desperate to see its POV properly represented on the big screen. In a more idiosyncratic sense, it also cast an impossibly wide net in terms of tone. Girls Trip is an unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. It’s also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of its Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy that’s bound to grab the attention of anyone within earshot. Very rarely is something with commercial appeal this vast is so energetically strange & memorable for its grand scale acts of depravity.

The four leads of this corny/raunchy comedy feel as if they were grown in a lab to appeal to every quadrant of middle aged women in 2010s America. Queen Latifah is a skilled journalist whose talents are going to waste writing click bait hit pieces on celebrity gossip. Regina Hall is billed as the second coming of Oprah, a successful woman who seemingly Has It All in public, but struggles to keep her family together in private. Tiffany Haddish is a nuclear element of chaos, an overgrown childhood id in an adult woman’s body. Jada Pinkett-Smith is an uptight Party Mom, a “nurturer”, which is in direct contrast to her real life persona fronting a nu-metal band (!) & raising America’s most adorable space aliens. Self-described as The Flossy Posse, this meticulously crafted crew reunites after their post-college fall-out for an extravagant trip to New Orleans, where they attend Essence Fest & generally raise hell. Half the plot concerns mending emotional wounds between Latifah & Hall’s estranged besties as they try to save face in discussions of their personal lives. The other half is a group-wide mission to get Pinkett Smith’s hopelessly milquetoast Mother archetype laid. Haddish operates entirely outside either concern, ensuring the film’s immortality in her Freddy Got Fingered levels of depravity. Haddish’s lengthy tangents about ripping men’s hearts out & storing drugs in her “bootyhole” are paired with acts of mimed fellatio & a firehose of sprayed urine to completely pervert & subvert all of the film’s more heartfelt reflections on betrayal, reconciliation, and True Friendship. Haddish is not the only Flossy Posse member with blue material; every character gets their fair share of one-liners about giant dicks, camel toe, etc. Her performance just pushes the material into all-timer territory in its commitment to depravity & its freedom to exist outside concerns of realism or grounding melodrama.

New Orleans is the perfect backdrop for these sordid/maudlin shenanigans, but I have to admit I was often distracted by the way my city was depicted onscreen. The laws of movie magic dictate that I cannot nitpick the logic of the Hotel Monteleone’s carousel bar being near-empty on a festival weekend, the convenience of cabs & hotel rooms opening out of nowhere, the inhuman ability for the Flossy Posse to down consecutive Hand Grenades™ without exploding into piles of vomit, or the lunacy of a character having their morning coffee at the Topical Isle daiquiri chain. I can let these minuscule details go. The sanitized amusement park look of America’s infected bootyhole, Bourbon Street, was laughably unrealistic, however, and as a local it’s always sad to see one of the most vital, dynamic cultures on the planet reduced to off-season Mardi Gras beads & public flashing. From a tourist’s perspective, this view of the city might right true, though. There’s genuine admiration for the city in the film’s loving shots of the Superdome and local music touches like a twerking-flavored bounce show or a brass band rendition of a Bill Withers classic. Essence Fest also plays a huge role in Girls Trip‘s basic appeal. Not only does it allow for pop music acts to break up more labored stretches of emotional conflict; it also leads to weird novelties like this being the only film you’re likely to ever see where Ava DuVernay & DJ Mannie Fresh are both featured in prominent cameos. On some level, Girls Trip works as a dual commercial both for New Orleans as a lawless playground and for Essence as a concert experience. I just hope that anyone who takes the bait is aware that they won’t have as effortless of a time with it as The Flossy Posse, even with Regina Hall money to throw around.

There are plenty of reasons why Girls Trip shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Besides its depiction of a pristine, non-existent New Orleans, the film is overlong, dramatically labored, and embarrassingly cheesy. You get a whopping taste of that cheese in its introductory stretch, which heavily features a lazily Photoshopped group portrait of The Flossy Posse standing in front of a green screen Superdome and (I kid you not) opens with a record scratch sound effect. It’s somehow easy to even be charmed by that opener, however, thanks to how a look back to the crew’s college days allows for open 90s nostalgia (a hot commodity right now, another reason why Latifah’s casting was perfectly calibrated). If Girls Trip is indeed a movie-by-committee proposition engineered to appeal to as many people as possible, I’ll admit I was not at all immune to its scheme. The film’s gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth plays directly to my raccoonish tastes. Even if the massive runtime or clueless sentimentality had entirely soured me, I still would have walked away a fan of Tiffany Haddish, whose Jerri Blank-esque presence elevates the material immeasurably. I wasn’t necessarily negative on the film’s emotionally manipulate half either, though. Not every story beat about motherhood anxiety or the struggle to maintain the integrity of Christian Faith & public brands did something for me, but the film’s overall celebration of female friendship is undeniably infectious. It may be a story that could have been told more honestly & more succinctly, but the way its genuine pathos is perverted by the chaos of bar fights, hallucination, and male frontal nudity made for a delightfully subversive summertime comedy. I just won’t shed a tear if Girls Trip 2 happens to be set in another city, so I can focus less on setting & more on whom the Flossy Posse is banging, pissing on, giving a sincere heart to heart to, etc.

-Brandon Ledet