As Hollywood's most under-the-radar African American director, you might describe Malcolm D. Lee by using the name of one of his movies — Undercover Brother.
He's a low-profile guy (certainly compared to his cousin Spike Lee) who's been cranking out good-natured and crowd-pleasing comedies for nearly 20 years — Roll Bounce, The Best Man, and its sequel — and is slated to team with Philly's own Kevin Hart for the comedy Night School.
Hart actually makes a split-second cameo (as himself) in Malcolm D. Lee's new comedy Girls Trip, which has the director's characteristic fingerprints: It's a breezy, bawdy, freewheeling ensemble piece (with a well-earned R rating) about friendship and its travails, this time with female leads.
When a successful author and purveyor of her own "you-can-have-it-all" lifestyle brand named Ryan (Regina Hall) is invited to headline a convention in New Orleans, she asks three friends she's been neglecting to reunite and party with her — divorced single mom Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), online gossip blogger Sasha (Queen Latifah), and Dina (Tiffany Haddish), who is the group's resident id, compulsively ready to do and say anything, always in gallant(-ish) defense of her best friends.
Ryan doesn't really have a perfect marriage, of course, and when pictures surface of her ex-jock husband canoodling with an internet floozie, her friend Dina erupts — she spots him across a hotel lobby and, in a blink, has smashed a wine bottle and waved the jagged edge in his face. It's not the severity of the act that gets laughs, it's the suddenness — Haddish is a wild-card actress that Lee keeps playing in Girls Trip, and he draws an inside straight nearly every time.
I can't think of another director making a pivot like that, especially after a big slapstick sequence involving bungee cords and bladders burgeoned by booze. I kind of wish I hadn't seen it, but perhaps all Lee is saying is give pee a chance.
It's possible, even given Lee's jaunty structure, that he could have given Girls Trip a more disciplined edit — the movie runs more than two hours, devotes generous time to less interesting characters, and makes room for the movie's long roster of performance cameos — in addition to Hart, there's P. Diddy, Common, Ne-Yo, Mariah Carey, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and many others.
It's quite a party, but it turns the movie's leads into passive participants in concert scenes.
With the exception, of course, of Haddish, who proves there is no stage she cannot commandeer.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. With Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Queen Latifah, Larenz Tate. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 122 minutes.
Parent's guide: R (nudity, obscene language).