The road trip comedy has become pretty common over the last few decades, in part because of how useful it is for screenwriters. Put a group of mismatched people together, add in a quest that seems super important to at least one of them, a couple of obstacles (preferably, one is thematic, one is wacky), then throw in a bunch of vulgar jokes and you’ve got yourself an easy to pitch/market movie. The gleefully raunchy Joy Ride has all of those elements, sprinkling female friendship and racial identity on top of them. While it is formulaic, in the end, what actually matters is if it’s funny. It is. Very.
The story of four Asian-American women traveling to China for a business deal, it opens with some dick jokes and doesn’t stop until the final credits. One of the characters makes sex positive art and Joy Ride (88 minutes, without the end credits) is unapologetic when it comes to its interest in sex. Many of their adventures involve having sex, wanting to have sex or being too sexual for certain people. Yet the story’s main arc is surprisingly effective.
A big issue in these kinds of comedies is a sudden turn toward sentimentality at the conclusion. It doesn’t feel sudden here. Sure, there is absolutely a tonal shift, but the movie plays fair with where it wants to go. There are meaningful stakes. That shift is a little bumpy, and there are some developments that come off somewhat flat. Still, the cast is good, the hit/miss ratio as far as jokes go leans heavily toward the former and the subject matter feels fresh. This is a good one.
Audrey was born in China, but put up for adoption as a baby and raised by white, American, parents. She has always felt too white for her Asian friends and too Asian for corporate America. When her law firm sends her to China to close a huge deal, she brings along her lifelong best friend, Lolo, her college friend turned famous actress, Kat, and Lolo’s socially awkward cousin, Deadeye, for support. Chaos ensues.
The thematic glue connecting the silly with the serious concerns Audrey’s sense of self. Lolo is constantly joking about how white Audrey is. Whereas Audrey’s work colleagues make it very clear they exclusively see her as Asian. She doesn’t know who she is. After the meeting doesn’t go exactly as planned, Lolo convinces Audrey to meet her birth mother, who left an address so she could be contacted. While the trip to meet the birth mom is full of wild shenanigans, the eventual destination is touching and played straight. In their own unique ways, all four main characters struggle with who they are. The screenplay gives them each personal journeys (though Audrey’s definitely has the most depth) and never mocks them for their confusion.
A key to this genre is that the characters are types, since that makes it easier to introduce them quickly and get right to the jokes. Audrey is the professional, focused on work and maybe looking for a major change. Lolo is a struggling artist, unabashed in her love of sex, who likes things the way they are. Kat is a former wild girl who now wants to be seen as the good girl. Deadeye is lonely, but nice, yet doesn’t know how to read a room.
The thing is, while these descriptions are accurate, there is more to these women than that. Their relationships with each other truly matter, despite the fact that Lolo and Kat hate each other and Audrey would prefer to keep her distance from Deadeye. The characters all grow, both in the way they see each other and in the way they see themselves. So, while it is funny, it is also a little more.
But, most significantly, it is really funny. All four leads get opportunities for big laughs. Sherry Cola (as Lolo) has the most outrageous lines and Sabrina Wu (as Deadeye) gets the best punchlines. However, Ashley Park (as Audrey) and Stephanie Hsu (as Kat) also have some great moments. First-time director Adele Lim is best known for cowriting Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon. She shows a great control of pace here, a skill vital in comedy. Soon, hopefully, Joy Ride will be what she’s best known for. And perhaps whatever she does next.
3¾ out of 5
Ashley Park as Audrey
Sherry Cola as Lolo
Stephanie Hsu as Kat
Sabrina Wu as Deadeye
Directed by Adele Lim
Screenplay by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao