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.
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.