VERDICT: Raucous Asian-American road-trip comedy serves up bawdy laughs and star-making performances.
The scarcity of R-rated comedies from a woman’s perspective, let alone an Asian-American perspective, makes the very existence of Joy Ride a kind of small miracle. That it’s also outrageously hilarious (without being undone by occasional waves of friend-bonding sweetness) makes its emergence on the scene all the more exciting.
It’s a film that fully delivers both cultural specificity (an older relative is referred to as being “has-a-plastic-bag-full-of-other-plastic-bags Chinese”) and raunchy R-rated comedy, as its cast asserts confident, witty, sexual agency throughout.
We open with a flashback to 25 years ago when Audrey and Lolo meet on a playground, the only two Chinese girls in the very Caucasian Seattle suburb of White Hills. Audrey, who’s been adopted by white parents (Annie Mumolo and David Denman) meekly cowers before a racist playground bully while Lolo, the child of immigrants, punches the little jerk in the throat, and a lifelong friendship is born.
Currently, however, it’s a relationship with some strains. Audrey (Ashley Park, Emily in Paris), always an over-achiever, is a successful lawyer with a big firm that’s sending her to Beijing to close a deal, even though she’s never visited China. Lolo (Sherry Cola) lives in Audrey’s garage and creates sexually-explicit art; Audrey’s taking Lolo on this trip only because she needs a Mandarin interpreter.
At the airport, Audrey learns that Lolo’s socially-awkward cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) will be tagging along, while Lolo discovers that, once they arrive in China, they’re meeting up with Audrey’s college roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu), now a Chinese soap star. (Lolo and Kat have a simmering rivalry over who’s really Audrey’s best friend.)
The initial meeting in Beijing with CEO Chao (Ronny Chieng, M3GAN) goes disastrously, from Audrey vomiting alcohol on him to Chao’s discovery that Audrey has no connection with her Chinese birth mother. Lolo lies and says that Audrey and her mother are actually close, and Chao invites them all to a party at the end of the week, sending Audrey and her friends off to track down Audrey’s long-lost mom.
Along the way, the quartet encounters a blonde American drug mule (Meredith Hagner, Search Party), Lolo and Deadeye’s extended family (headed by matriarch Nai Nai, played by Lori Tan Chinn of Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens), and a Chinese basketball team; the latter leads to some wild slapstick erotic encounters.
The screenplay by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, Teresa Hsiao, and first-time director Adele Lim (a co-writer of Crazy Rich Asians) sets up some elaborate set pieces, from the women having to dispose of illicit narcotics by any means necessary to a flashy musical number (where they pretend to be a hot new K-Pop girl group), but the small moments land as well. Audrey’s desire to move on with her life while also being tethered to Lolo rings true, as do Lolo’s accusations that Audrey is a white woman by nurture even if she’s Asian by nature. (When Lolo makes a reference to “Linsanity,” Audrey thinks she’s talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda.)
Thanks to her recent Oscar nomination for Everything Everywhere All at Once, Hsu is the marquee name of the bunch, but Joy Ride is truly an ensemble piece, allowing all of its talented performers their moments of glory. Audiences unfamiliar with Park and Cola’s previous screen work — wild-card Wu gets their first major role here after years as a stand-up and TV writer — will come away admiring the foursome’s comedic and dramatic chops. (2023 is shaping up to be the Summer of Sherry Cola; she’s a bright spot in Shortcomings, opening in US theaters in August.)
The production team, particularly cinematographer Paul Yee (Reality, The Fits), takes care to showcase a China (and points beyond) that isn’t the one usually depicted in mainstream US cinema. From modern hotels to the rural countryside, the settings here call to mind the films of Jia Zhang-ke more than the backdrops of standard globe-trotting thrillers meant to convey stereotypical exoticism.
Joy Ride marks an assured first outing for Lim as a director, as she expertly juggles tones and crafts perfectly timed setups and payoffs. She and her co-writers also delicately weave in queer subtext — the assertive Lolo is actively pansexual, and Deadeye subtly becomes more comfortable with their non-binary identity by the end of the movie — in a way that never feels didactic or wedged-in. That’s a kind of joy movie audiences could stand to see more of.