Just China have a good time
Theatrically-released raunchy comedies are becoming an endangered species. We need to nurture them like the pandas at the National Zoo. I feel some affection for Joy Ride, even though it falls squarely into a well-known formula. That might be because it’s part of a dying breed, or it might just be because this is a solidly funny film with a lot of heart.
Joy Ride is a joyfully filthy buddy road trip comedy featuring a fearsome foursome, i.e., akin to the exact pitch of The Hangover and Girls Trip. We have the uptight protagonist, Audrey (Ashley Park), the aimless best friend, Lolo (Sherry Cola), the horny third wheel, Kat (Stephanie Hsu), and the awkward weirdo, Deadeye (Sabrina Wu).
This time, the film’s perspective is uniquely from that of Asian-American women. Joy Ride is directed (by Adele Lim), written (by Lim, Cherry Chevapravatdumron, and Teresa Hsiao), and entirely stars such. This gives it a fresh voice, even when the character dynamics and punchlines aren’t entirely original. Lim’s precision in her point of view shines during the opening expository montage and the heartfelt moments in the third act. The film is produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the pair that rejuvenated the R-rated buddy comedy with Superbad, which is an all-timer in my book. Kudos to the pair for keeping the genre alive with new creators, even though Joy Ride is texturally and narratively quite different from Superbad: we’re following one thread the whole time, and the entire movie builds to two or three memorable moments rather than doling them out across the runtime.
The story follows Audrey’s business trip to China, where she was adopted by her white parents as a baby. Two friends from her group tag along, and they reunite with the last member, Kat, who is working as a C-list actress in China. The trip eventually morphs into a search for Audrey’s birth mother for story reasons that don’t stand up to much scrutiny (for a story-lite movie, there sure are a lot of glaring plot holes). Shenanigans ensue.
The casting is what makes the movie tick – all the leads do a great job bringing life to their stereotypical characters, and they have excellent chemistry. Hsu outshines the bunch to the extent that I kept forgetting she wasn’t the lead. Wu’s Deadeye reinvents the “World of Warcraft” basement dweller stereotype into a K-Pop fangirl. Park and Cola are quite funny, too.
Hsu is a victim of the film’s one great joke, a visual punchline so memorable the film spends the first two thirds of the movie building up to it and the final third constantly referencing it – the stinger to the credits is a redux. There’s also a fun montage where the leads hook up with basketball players, with former NBA player Baron Davis appearing as himself.
When the film pivots towards more heartfelt content towards the end, it feels mostly earned. The “best friends forever” sentimentality is poured on a little thick, but there are a few scenes surrounding Audrey’s birth mother that legitimately choked me up. As a father of two young kids who also recently lost my father, I’m an easy mark for such content, but it’s a well-rendered dramatic beat.
The film’s final act also includes a character revelation that twists the film’s viewpoint in an even more idiosyncratic direction as Lim and co. parse out the way American culture otherizes and homogenizes Asian people. I’m not really at this kind of movie for the story or character development, but Joy Ride adds more richness to its characters than most R-rated comedies.
So, even if Joy Ride won’t go down in the annals of great comedies, it’s an entertaining outing with a really fun cast, a few great moments, and some unique insights on being an Asian woman in 2020’s USA. It’s a relief to watch a raunchy good time made for the theaters. Alas, the movie didn’t do well; it pulled in only $13 million against a budget more than twice that size. Let’s hope it does well on streaming so movies like this don’t vanish forever.