A stellar cast makes the most of this funny and thoughtful raunchy comedy, which follows four Asian American friends on a trip to China.
July 06, 2023
Before it busts out licking lucky cats, K-pop-style Cardi B covers, cocaine enemas, threesome injuries and intimate tattoos, Joy Ride begins with a punch. For most of the movie, Audrey Sullivan (Ashley Park, Beef) and Lolo Chen (Sherry Cola, Good Trouble) are nearing 30, travelling in China and going on a wild journey in a gleefully raucous comedy. In the 1998-set prologue in White Falls, Washington, though, they're five-year-olds (debutants Lennon Yee and Milana Wan) first meeting, being taunted by a racist playground bully and responding with the outgoing Lolo's fist. Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon screenwriter Adele Lim uses her directorial debut's opening scene not just to start a fast and firm friendship, but to establish the film's tone, sense of humour and, crucially, its willingness to fight. Joy Ride will ultimately get sentimental; however, this is a movie that beats up cultural prejudices and stereotypes by letting its four main female and non-binary Asian American characters grapple with them while being complicated and chaotic.
Hollywood should be well past representation being such a noteworthy factor. That should've happened long before Bridesmaids and Bachelorette gave The Hangover's template a ladies-led spin more than a decade ago, and prior to Girls Trip spending time four Black women on a raucous weekend away six years back. Reality proves otherwise, sadly, so Joy Ride openly addresses the discrimination and pigeonholing slung Audrey, Lolo, and their pals Kat (Everything Everywhere All At Once Oscar-nominee Stephanie Hsu) and Deadeye's (comedian and movie first-timer Sabrina Wu) ways — and in Audrey's case, after being adopted as a baby by the white Sullivans (The Recruit's David Denman and Bridesmaids' co-writer Annie Mumolo), internalised. With its booze- and sex-fuelled antics, Lim's film could've simply been formulaically entertaining, just with Asian American characters in Asia. It certainly doesn't hold back with its raunchy setpieces. But it's a better and more thoughtful feature because it engages with the diasporic experience; "I'm just a garbage American who only speaks English," Audrey chides herself, which the picture she's in unpacks.
The full Joy Ride equation, then, also treads in The Farewell and Everything Everywhere All At Once's impressive and rightly acclaimed footsteps. Tellingly, Lim and her co-screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, both of whom boast Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens on their resumes, originally had Joy Fuck Club as their film's working title. Also revealing: that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's production company Point Grey Pictures is behind the movie, after previously giving cinemas flicks like Bad Neighbours and its sequel, This Is the End, The Night Before, Sausage Party, Blockers, Long Shot and Good Boys. Getting culturally specific; dismantling Asian cliches; examining identity, belonging and displacement; being hilariously bawdy: Joy Ride always feels like the sum of these easily spotted parts, but it also always feels genuine.
As children, Audrey and Lolo are thrust together due to their shared heritage — "are you Chinese?," the Sullivans ask the Chens (The Midnight Club's Kenneth Liu and Platonic's Debbie Fan) in that introductory sequence, which inspires a shared glance that says everything — but they're a chalk-and-cheese pair personality-wise. Before the young Lolo smacks their tormentor, Audrey is cowering. As adults, Lolo makes sex-positive art riffing on Chinese culture that hasn't yet brought her success, while Audrey is a fast-rising lawyer eyeing a promotion at a firm filled with white men (such as Don't Worry Darling's Timothy Simons). Lolo lives in Audrey's garage, is steeped in her culture and content being herself. Audrey names Mumford & Sons and The National as her favourite bands, and can list Succession characters instantly. As they head to China so that Audrey can close a big deal, with Lolo along for the ride as her personal translator, the latter is excited about seeing family, while the former is guilty of making wary assumptions about what the trip will be like.
When Lolo's K-pop-obsessed cousin Deadeye joins them at the airport, it's the first surprise that's thrown Audrey's way. The bickering between Lolo and Kat, Audrey's college roommate-turned- Chinese soap-opera star, over who's truly her BFF — that she easily foresees. This wouldn't be a wild getaway comedy if there weren't more bolts out of the blue coming at Audrey, of course, kicking off with a drink-heavy night trying to get her client Chao (Ronny Chieng, M3GAN) to sign, which leads to a cross-country quest to find her birth mother. Drugs, sex, vomit, a faux band, 'WAP', a distracted basketball team, vagina-view camerawork: that all follows. So does a fateful train ride that's utter pandemonium in a completely different way to Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, and Kat trying to hide her between-the-sheets past from her very Christian fiancé (Desmond Chiam, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
Lim weaves Audrey's journey of acceptance and discovery, embracing her background and realising the eager-to-please and assimilate part that she's unwittingly played since childhood, throughout a zippy and brightly shot madcap romp of a movie. And, she largely finds the right balance — including as Lolo refuses to be anyone but herself; the blunt, introverted but caring Deadeye yearns to be liked for being themself; and Kat struggles with knowing how to be true to her real self beyond the demure, polite and dutiful front that she's been putting on professionally and personally. Along the way, Joy Ride revels in a candy-coloured dance number, lets Asian men be ripped and lusted after, and, yes, gets mawkish when it comes time to tie everything up neatly. Sometimes it's sidesplittingly funny, sometimes it's only eagerly trying to be, but it's aptly never happy slipping into one easy category.
At their best when Joy Ride is either at its most manic and outrageous, or its weightiest and intelligent, Park, Cola, Hsu and Wu are a dream cast. If the film wants to stick to The Hangover setup by sparking sequels, teaming its core quartet up again and again would be keenly welcomed after this first go-around. Park has the trickiest and straightest role, Cola the brassiest, Hsu the lewdest and Wu the most awkward — and each nails the task while giving the film a fleshed-out, multi-faceted, smart, striving, relatably imperfect crew, and actively dispelling the idea that to be Asian American is to be a monoculture. Indeed, their energy and authenticity, and Lim's behind the lens, sometimes eclipses Joy Ride's jokes — and that couldn't be a better problem to have.
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