Bawdy and shamelessly silly at times, but also surprisingly heartfelt, Joy Ride takes the traditional male-centric R-rated comedy and filters it through the Asian-American, feminine perspective. If that sounds academic, don’t worry, this road movie rivals Freddy Got Fingered for crudeness.
Films like Bridesmaids set the standard for this kind of material, in which a group of women face their repressed fears by falling on their faces, but director Adele Lim puts a fresh spin, creating a world that’s recognizably human while still existing in a hyperbolic (even psychedelic) universe. She might have even established a new genre: the Asian-American Adult Comedy, infusing a Molotov cocktail of influences from The Farrelly Brothers to Kung Fu cinema to K-Pop to Porky’s.
After a clunky prologue where we meet the two main characters, the only two Asian girls in a mostly white school, we fast forward 25 years, where those same girls, Lolo (Sherry Cola) and Audrey (Ashley Park), are still besties. Their lives might’ve taken different paths, but they continue to depend on each other like they did as kids. Adopted by white parents, Audrey became an accomplished attorney, while Lolo lives in Audrey’s garage and makes vulgar –or as she calls it “sex positive”– art.
When Audrey is tasked to travel to China for work, she takes Lolo, who knows Mandarin, a language she never learned. They’re also joined by Lolo’s cousin, Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), an intensely shy Gen Z’er who gets so emotionally knotted up she disintegrates into strange outbursts. Once they arrive in China, they meet up with Audrey’s old college friend, Kat (Stephanie Hsu, Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress in Everything Everywhere All At Once), a daytime soap star who’s not only in denial of her promiscuous past but covets a lascivious tattoo located in a “mysterious” place (we’ll see it later).
For Audrey, this is an important trip. If she closes the deal in China, she’ll become a partner. Also, Lolo is pushing her to find her birth mother, a prospect that’s less enticing since Audrey is a little in denial of her Asian heritage. A spiritual search for identity and a pilgrimage to their homeland ensues, and it’s like the Joy Luck Club, except with threesomes, cocaine, booze, needle drops, and vagina jokes.
Their journey begins in a Shanghai nightclub where Audrey nearly blows her deal by drinking too many shots and literally blowing chunks on her firm’s prospective business target. Soon, the gals take a train where they encounter a drug smuggler (Meredith Hagner), a squirrely white girl who seems like a harmless tourist but turns out to be their worst nightmare. From there, they ingest a lot of narcotics, hitchhike across the beautiful countryside, indulge in an evening of lusty abandon with a traveling basketball team, including Baron Davis who plays himself, and disguise themselves as a K-Pop band to get on a private plane. Through it all, the men are sexually objectified like pieces of meat. And it’s about time.
Joy Ride is not for everyone. The tone is abrasive, and the filmmakers chuck a thousand jokes at the dartboard in hopes that a few will land. Thankfully, most of them do. Some of the scenarios feel too set-up, but Lim propels the narrative at such a breakneck speed you hardly have time to notice or care.
Thankfully, this ride is more than raunch, ridiculous set pieces and uproarious situations. There’s an evident love for the characters. Screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao have sketched personalities who have their own quirks and issues, which creates an emotional and ebullient tension. Ultimately, the scenarios these characters find themselves in aren’t as important as the way they react to them, helping the movie earn its sentimental third act. Well, sort of. It probably could’ve benefited from a little less schmaltz, but you can’t fault the producers (which include Lim, Chevapravatdumrong and Seth Rogan) for wanting to make a statement, especially when the AAPI community has endured so many stereotypes on film. Unlike some comedies that awkwardly shoehorn sappiness into the narrative, there’s an earnestness that doesn’t break stride.
The jokes in Joy Ride come fast and hard, sometimes too fast. Also, Deadeye is hilarious but grossly underwritten. As portrayed, she comes off more as a comical idea than a fully formed person. Still, these are minor asides for a movie that has plentiful laughs, exuberance, and an interesting take on cultural identity. It’s jarring at times, but once you surrender to the rollicking rhythmic contortions, you’ll enjoy the ride, road bumps and all. It’s easily the best comedy of 2023, so far. And besides, don’t you want to see Kat’s tattoo?
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