Joy Ride is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
The advertising campaign for Adele Lim's Joy Ride (2023) makes it look like an uninhibited, hard-R comedy full of sex, drugs, slapstick, and gross-out humor. And—make no mistake—that's what it is. (Lim has said the screenplay's working title was The Joy Fuck Club.) Whereas a film like this summer's No Hard Feelings might think it's daring to step gingerly over the line from PG-13 to R, Joy Ride unabashedly snorts that line like coke and uses the resulting energy boost to run right up to the edge of an NC-17. (There are drug-packed condoms erupting in body cavities, cunnilingus-related concussions, and a long running gag about tattooed vaginas, which pays off hilariously in a full-frontal reveal that is somehow even funnier and more extreme than whatever we've been imagining.)
So if that's all this movie was—a bold and edgy big-studio sex comedy with an Asian American ensemble—it would be worth celebrating. (Go ahead and name another one: I'll wait.) But Joy Ride manages to do more than just break the crass-ceiling for Asian American actresses. It also grounds its comedy in well-drawn characters, stealthily develops actual emotional stakes across several awkward friendships, and lightly explores questions of identity, assimilation, sex shaming, and intra-community prejudice within the East Asian diaspora. None of it is heavy or profound—heaven forbid—but Joy Ride has brains and heart to go with its many other body parts, all while managing to stay, consistently, laugh-out-loud funny.
Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) have been inseparable best friends since childhood, when they were the only Asian kids in the aptly-named White Hills neighborhood of Seattle. Audrey, the adopted child of White parents, was the over-achieving good girl, always feeling she needed to be perfect to prove she belonged. Lolo, born to a Chinese American family, was messier, fearless, and seemingly without any fucks to give. Now, as the movie opens, Audrey is a corporate attorney trying to make partner at her White-dominated law firm, and Lolo lives in Audrey's garage while she makes sex-positive art pieces, like an obscenely tongue-lapping version of the Chinese "Lucky Cat" figurine called "Licky Cat."
When her firm sends Audrey to China to close a big deal, Audrey—who speaks no Chinese—brings Lolo along to serve as translator. To Audrey's annoyance, Lolo has invited her socially awkward, K-Pop obsessed cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) to tag along. For her part, Lolo is annoyed and jealous that Audrey is also planning to meet up with her other "best friend," her college roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu), who stars in a Chinese soap opera and is engaged to a Christian hunk who thinks she's a virgin.
Things start to go wrong almost immediately, beginning with a disastrously drunken "meeting" with Chao (Ronnie Chieng), the businessman whose contract Audrey came to sign. In one of those absurd contrivances necessary to set a comedy plot in motion, Chao (after being barfed on) decides he better meet Audrey's people before he decides to go into business with her. ("If you do not know where you came from, how do you know who you are?" he asks.) And so the quartet sets off across China to find Audrey's birth-mother, a journey of misadventures that leads them into a lot of shenanigans involving reluctantly smuggling drugs, enthusiastically boinking basketball players, and inexpertly impersonating a K-pop band.
The various setpieces are absurdly contrived and broadly executed, with mixed (but majority) success. Lim, in her directorial debut, keeps things moving at such a frantic pace we don't have much time to think about anything too much. (Sometimes that means a joke doesn't land as well as it might, but that's okay because another one is coming right behind it.) And the dialogue—the screenplay is by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong & Teresa Hsiao, with, one suspects, a lot of improvisation from the cast—is sharp, wickedly funny, and always rooted in character.
To discuss any of the individual performances is to do the others a disservice: this is a tight comedic ensemble without a single weak link. Certainly, Cola is a deserving potential superstar: she gets the film's funniest lines, and delivers them with surgical timing, but I was equally impressed with the subtle acting she does behind the foul-mouthed one-liners. Wu, as well, makes a promising big-screen debut: they take what could easily have been a one-note "weirdo" role and slowly turn Deadeye into a sweetly moving character.
This, ultimately, is the secret of Joy Ride's success, as it is the secret to any comedy's success: no matter how absurd the gags and contrivances, we have to actually care about the characters. And we do, here, in part because Joy Ride makes a lot of comedy with its characters but never makes jokes of them. Raunchy, slapstick, and gross-out humor is low-hanging fruit, but it takes a deft hand to make it as funny as this without also making the comedy mean-spirited. Joy Ride, however—like its Black cousin Girls Trip (2017)—genuinely likes its characters, and never judges them—even if they sometimes they judge each other. Coke binges and wild sexual threesomes may be inconveniently timed, but they are never treated as character flaws. A giant vulva-tattoo might be a practical issue, but it is never a moral one. Joy Ride manages to stay sex-positive, drug-appreciative, diversity-embracing, and oddness-accepting; it ultimately doesn't think there's any one right way to be a person, let alone to be Asian.
Comedy, more than perhaps any other genre, is rooted in cultural perspective. So whenever I review a comedy not made from or for my own narrow perspective—see also this summer's earlier release The Blackening—I am aware of being a straight, middle-aged White guy, with all the inherent biases and limitations that entails. Which is to say, I know I am neither the intended audience to enjoy, nor the ideal critic to discuss, Joy Ride. I am sure there are jokes that went over my head, and subtle nuances of cultural satire and identity that elude me. To which I also say, So what? Conservatively, ninety-nine percent of all comedies in the history of Hollywood have been made with precisely my narrow perspective in mind, and people with other cultural perspectives somehow managed to enjoy them, and the majority of them didn't make me laugh as often or hard as this one.
One final, related note: There is a review going around from a White male critic (I won't link to it) that slams Joy Ride for being "raunchy simply to be raunchy," and claims it both "objectifies men" and "targets white people." All of which is stupidly reductive and—to the slight extent any of it is true—would stand as a strong recommendation for the film. For over a century Hollywood has produced comedies in which White men have enjoyed the liberation of being raunchy. Those films almost always objectify women, in much crueler and more exploitative ways than Joy Ride celebrates any of its many hot dudes. Those films also frequently featured grotesquely shameful Asian stereotypes for "comedic" purposes—Long Duk Dong, anyone?—to far more damaging effect than any of the extremely gentle ribbing White culture gets in passing here. (For the vast majority of Joy Ride's running time, White people are nowhere to be seen and utterly irrelevant, and one suspects this is what some White viewers find "offensive.") There are no such things as "reverse sexism" or "reverse racism," folks, and attacking one of the only mainstream comedies to center Asian American women and non-binary actors on these grounds is both disingenuous and despicable. Anyone who skips Joy Ride because its protagonists don't look like you—or because a couple of the jokes are made about people who do—is going to miss one of the funniest movies of the year.