Movie Review: ‘Tol is a Sweet, Solid Throwback Comedy

TL;DR: ‘Tol doesn’t completely overcome the worst lessons of its inspirations, but it’s still a sweet, funny throwback comedy.

‘Tol is a Filipino comedy trapped between the past & the present. It begins with three men covered in food, blood & bruises interrogated by a cop played by Jimmy Santos, asking why they were caught fighting at a kid’s birthday party. Instead of explaining what transpired at the party, they tell their story from the very beginning. Lando, Arthur, & Dimitri – played respectively by Arjo Atayde, Ketchup Eusebio, & Joross Gamboa – have been best friends ever since they were kids crammed on the back of a tricycle that brought them to school. They’ve remained close up to adulthood, never leaving each other’s side to the point that they decided to work as toll booth operators near their hometown; a boring job they’ve never taken seriously.

Their humdrum lives are disrupted with the sudden arrival of their old childhood friend Elena (Jessy Mendiola). She used to be very close to them, sitting next to each other during class & even dancing with them at prom, before she migrated to America with her parents. However, her return reawakens their old rivalries. The main trio have always loved her, which was a constant source of conflict as they try to fight for her affection. When she returns with a son in tow & leaving a troubled marriage behind, they see this as an opportunity to settle once & for all who will Elena choose between the three of them, regardless of what it will do to their friendship.

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It’s a premise that forces the main trio to confront their past & take stock of their decisions in life, but they’re not the only ones looking back. Writer/director Miko Livelo & co-writer Joel Ferrer have always taken inspiration from the wacky, vaudeville-inspired & somewhat vitrolic Filipino comedies of yesteryear & giving it their own spin; even Jimmy Santos’ small role is a nod to his extensive work in the genre. They’ve worked mostly with Regal Entertainment to create comedies that live up to the spirit of the studio’s vast filmography like the silly body swap shenanigans of the underrated Woke Up Like This to I Love You to Death, a horror rom-com mashup that mixes the callous comedies of Rene Requiestas – whose films always made fun of his distinct, toothless appearance – with the campier entries of the Shake, Rattle & Roll horror franchise with uneven yet interesting results. What makes their films unique is instead of taking a page from the current crop of comedies like Vice Ganda – whose cartoonish, caustic, heavily referential films broke huge box-office records in the country while attrracting negative reviews – they ground their comedy on the foibles of their flawed, childish characters – which are almost always cishet men – imbue it with sweetness, & present it with visual clarity & punch.

‘Tol is no different. This is their take on the classic Filipino buddy comedy, which has gone out of style. It mostly revolved on male camaraderie, which meant it often punched down on anyone that didn’t fit the ideals of Filipino patriarchal society & treated women as objects of desire or maternal comfort. They use this template to create a good-natured story about friendships & growing up & strip it down to its barest components until it turns into an efficient gag machine. Jokes come quickly without any malice, rooting the absurd gags in the ridiculousness of the characters & putting them in outlandish situations that push them towards the chaotic conclusion shown at the beginning of the film; the high point of which puts a drug-induced spin on a classic trope of a 90s Filipino buddy comedy. The plot gets a bit wobbly as it ties everything together, but it never loses a single ounce of its charm or humor. It even gives each of the main trio their own standout moments before pitting them each other. Arjo Atayde conveys a goofy kindness that fits Lando’s role as the group’s unapologetic mama’s boy. Ketchup Eusebio is entertaining as the group’s suave, confident de facto leader. Joross Gamboa has the most outsized role as Dimitri, where he revels in the same manic, chaotic energy he showed in BuyBust.

Unfortunately, ‘Tol gets too enamored of the past. It recycles gags that would’ve been hacky even back then like Elena trying to feed them her mother’s awful kare-kare while they try to hide how much they hate it. It also couldn’t overcome the genre’s male-heavy focus. Jessy Mendiola is sorely underused as Elena, who mostly reacts to the silliness around her. It treats her as a mere catalyst for the ensuing shenanigans, which contradicts what the movie has to say about the trio’s narrow perspectives. Just like its main trio, the past ends up becoming a burden for ‘Tol, when it could’ve soared by moving beyond its inspirations.

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MMFF 2018: The Girl in the Orange Dress is Fun, But Can’t Outrun Its Flaws

TL;DR: The Girl in the Orange Dress is a fun, propulsive farce that can’t outrun its flawed, hollow nature.

Modest, conservative Anna (Jessy Mendiola) finds herself in a situation unlike anything she’s been before: waking up in a hotel room next to another man. And it’s not just any man. She’s beside Rye del Rosario, a talented, charitable actor with a playboy streak who’s also the biggest celebrity in the Philippines. She’s not exactly sure how she ended up there, but Rye assures her that they bonded deeply the night before & everything that happened was completely consensual.

That’s a questionable premise for a romantic comedy, & it’s even more problematic now that the #MeToo movement is righfully fighting back at the prevalence of sexual assault & sexual harassment in our patriarchal society, & holding those who commit these horrible actions accountable; especially powerful men who have avoided punishment using their money, clout, & privilege. To its credit, The Girl in the Orange Dress does explain what happened & tries to spin a decent modern fairy tale out of it. Cacai (Ria Atayde) is one of Anna’s best friends, who’s been a huge fan of Rye ever since she was young. She gets a chance to meet him when Cacai, Anna, & the rest of their best friends are invited to a birthday party where Rye is expected to arrive. All of them were having fun & getting drunk, & amidst of this Anna & Rye were able to meet & make a connection.

All Anna wants is to go home & forget everything that happened, but it won’t be easy. After someone took a picture of Rye holding hands with Anna as they went up to their hotel room with her face obscured, it caused a massive media circus. Everyone wants to know about the mysterious woman that caught Rye’s heart, so his die-hard fans & the media flocked to the hotel hoping to find out who she is, while the rest of the country are huddled in their TVs & radios so they wouldn’t miss any real-time updates. Rye vows to help Anna escape in any way he can & she needs to leave soon. Her best friends couldn’t locate her, & they’re starting to suspect something weird is going on; which threatens to ruin their friendship if Cacai finds out really happened between Rye & Anna.

This turns The Girl in the Orange Dress from a fluffy romantic comedy to a snappy, cleverly constructed farce. At its best, it’s a funny, propulsive film that gets laughs out of Rye & Anna’s ridiculous situation & seeing how long can hide & scheme their way out of everyone. Making Rye a huge celebrity allows it to poke fun at Filipino celebrity culture, and while it’s not original or deeply insightful, it has a lot of fun highlighting the silliness of celebrity worship without mocking anyone & how powerful the fantasy; it does have an awful rape joke though.

However, the film’s rapid pacing & fluffy tone isn’t enough to cover how slight & empty it is. The film gets swallowed by the mechanics of its farce, treating its characters like pieces on an elaborate board that it can move around for our enjoyment without any care if we have any affections for anyone. It’s too bad, since whatever meaningful emotional arcs doesn’t have time to develop & resonate. Rye & Anna’s romance is unconvincing, since it only tells us what happened the night before from Rye’s point of view and it takes a while for Anna to catch up to what really happened. Not only does it make it harder to understand why she fell for him in the first place, their dynamic is somewhat creepy because Rye holds all the power in their relationship. This makes it harder to root for them whenever their relationship is in danger, especially when it tacks on a cheap conflict like Anna’s dislike for brash playboys like Rye. It doesn’t even tackle or at least acknowledge Cacai’s destructive, entitled behavior throughout the film, shrugging it off as an ordinary celebrity crush even as it threathens to end their meaningful friendships. Jessy Mendiola & Jericho Rosales are appealing as a couple & Ria Atayde captures a specific kind of sad, desperate fanaticism that can be found in these groups, but all of them can’t save a flawed script. The Girl in the Orange Dress can’t rely on charm & breeziness alone, because while the laughs are definitely there, it leaves you feeling like you watched an escapade blown out of proportion for nothing.