There’s an overarching theme in Joy Ride about the uncertainty and insecurity that people experience when it comes to their cultural heritage and personal identity. Throughout the course of the riotous road trip romp, the emotional core always comes back to the idea of figuring out who you are and where you came from, both in a figurative and literal sense.
What makes the film memorable as well as hysterical is that you can say the same thing about the creative forces behind this latest take on the genre. Filmmaker Adele Lim (in her feature directorial debut) made her mark first in television, writing for dramatic shows like One Tree Hill, Life Unexpected, and Private Practice before making the leap to film with the screenplays for Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon. She’s demonstrated repeatedly over the course of her career that she can distill interpersonal relationships — be they familial, romantic, or platonic — in ways that connect with wide audiences, even if the content comes off as niche. On the other side of the equation, her co-writers, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, are most notable for their work on rapid-fire joke machine animated sitcoms like American Dad! and Family Guy, which are often reference-heavy and envelope-pushing with the satire, presented with the understanding that even the most borderline offensive gag or politically incorrect commentary is meant to share a collective laugh at the expense of ignorance rather than promote it.
These influences combine to give Joy Ride an extremely fun sense of humor while also reinforcing what it means to examine oneself and discover what really matters, injecting the proceedings with a surprising degree of heart. By so doing, in the midst of a parade of dick jokes, the film lays out a very convincing thesis for what makes the American Melting Pot great: that there is no set path to take to find yourself, that the lives we touch enrich our own, and that the world is at times completely silly and full of stupid bullshit, but it’s all worth it if you’re doing it honestly and with good intentions.
The ethnic and racial humor is laid on pretty thick from the opening moments, sending an immediate message that nothing is off limits so long as it gets a hearty laugh. We meet Lolo Chen (Sherry Cola) and Audrey Sullivan (Ashley Park), the only two Asian girls in the fictitious but completely on-the-nose Seattle suburb of “White Hills.” Lolo is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, while Audrey was adopted by white parents as a baby, and the two become childhood best friends (in seriously funny fashion) because of their shared demographics.
However, as the film goes to great lengths to demonstrate, apart from their roots, they have very little in common. Audrey is a studious overachiever who isn’t always assertive, while Lolo is foul-mouthed, bombastic, and something of a screwup. As they grow up, these traits help them form an almost symbiotic relationship, filling in each other’s personality gaps. Rather than fueling conflict, their differences reinforce their friendship and actually make them both extremely confident in their own spheres, to the point that as adults, Audrey is on the cusp of making partner at her law firm and Lolo experiments with what she calls “body-positive art,” which is mostly provocative sexual imagery, including a model for a children’s playground where the various apparatuses are shaped like penises and vaginas (don’t let Ron DeSantis see this, his head might explode).
Audrey’s big opportunity comes in the form of a potential business deal that necessitates a trip to China, with Lolo tagging along as her translator since she doesn’t know a word of Mandarin. While spending time with their parents looking over old photo albums before they depart, Lolo sees a picture of Audrey with her birth mother, the address of the adoption agency written on the back. Lolo suggests that they attempt to meet this woman as part of the grand friends adventure she’s always wanted to have, but Audrey quickly refuses, emphasizing that the excursion is just for work, albeit with a slight detour to visit her college roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu, who if I wasn’t already in love with after EEAAO, I definitely am now), who has become a famous actress in Beijing.
Plans begin to go awry pretty much immediately, as Audrey and Lolo are met at the airport by Lolo’s cousin Vanessa, who goes by the nickname, “Deadeye” (Sabrina Wu) due to the default facial expression worn by the character. Socially awkward and obsessed with K-pop, Deadeye is only meant to accompany them on the flight before meeting with a group of fellow stans from an online community, but with barely a mention of this arrangement, it’s clear that this is now a foursome. Once everyone’s met up, including an introduction to Kat’s uber-Christian, celibate co-star and fiancé (Desmond Chiam) who is seemingly unaware of her promiscuous past (the payoff for this is spectacularly shocking, probably destined to be the most indelible image of 2023 cinema), the group runs into the next major obstacle, Chao (Ronny Chieng), Audrey’s prospective business partner. After an evening of drinking and mild debauchery, Chao waxes poetic about the importance of family and knowing your history, musing that he could never work with someone who doesn’t know who they are. This prompts the impulsive Lolo to lie and say that Audrey is close with her birth mother, and that she’ll bring her to Chao’s family barbecue in a few days as proof to get him to sign the deal.
Thus, the plot is truly set in motion, as now Audrey is forced to look up her mom and hope she can convince her to join in their impromptu shenanigans despite them having no relationship whatsoever. This is the slight downside to the director and writers having such a lengthy history in episodic television. Pretty much every major plot point from this moment on is entirely predictable and formulaic. You know they’re going to have setbacks at every turn. There will be a manufactured conflict that leads to the group fighting and possibly breaking up right at the start of the third act, all of it derived from the various character flaws that have already been previously established as fun quirks. There will be tremendous leaps in logic to make some of the story contrivances work. Literally none of this is new.
That said, it can still be successful, but you have to be fully committed to the humor. We in the audience need to be laughing our asses off so that we can ignore the all too familiar trappings and story beats. Thankfully, this crack team of writers and actors is well up to the task. Even in the bits that didn’t really work for me (I’ll get to those in a moment), the jokes not only come a mile a minute, but the vast majority are set up in ways that at least make a modicum of sense within the world that the movie builds. Our four leads all get tremendous opportunities to make the most of the outright silly circumstances surrounding them, and they all rise to the occasion, with Cola and Hsu as MVPs thanks to their note-perfect deliveries. Seriously, watching those two one-up each other is worth the price of admission alone.
More importantly, there’s a certain fearlessness with which the creators weave in risqué material, completely unafraid to “go there” on matters of sexuality, national identity, drug use, and cultural appropriation. It takes a lot of guts, especially in this day and age, to allow your viewers to laugh just as hard at reframed stereotype gags (they find new ways to refer to, shall we say, “Asian resemblances” that would get me cancelled faster than I could blink if I did them, but they’re still funny as hell) as they might for pointless soap opera melodrama or a “Devil’s Three-way.” It’s welcoming and refreshing to see people just say and do things that they think are funny, knowing that there’s no harm intended and we’re all in on it. There’s genuine surprise in a lot of the execution as well, as some time-tested material gets a fresh coat of paint and a new interpretation. If nothing else, as celebrity cameos go, Baron Davis is about as far from expected as you can get.
Still, in spite of all that, not all of the jokes land. I mentioned when I featured the trailer in this month’s TFINYW column, that while the overall product looked to be fantastic — and it was — the sequences shown in the preview didn’t inspire the most confidence. In particular I’m referring to the “train” scene and the “airport” scene. Having now witnessed them in full context, I can at least say that they’re written in a professional manner, but they’re just not all that funny.
Starting with the latter, as I mentioned above, there is a proper set up for the eventual payoff. Deadeye doesn’t just suggest going through an airport as a K-pop group to avoid security out of the blue. When they first arrive in Beijing, they observe a similar outfit getting said special treatment. It’s still bullshit to suggest that fame allows you to bypass airport screening entirely, but at least the script sets a precedent. Further, the scheme is set up by Deadeye’s online friends in a validation of trust. Okay, fine.
But once that’s done, what’s the actual joke? It’s just four people dressed up like pop singers (I can’t recall an explanation as to how they got the outfits and wigs) who eventually perform “WAP.” Awareness of recent pop culture doesn’t carry an inherent degree of humor, it just puts the film in a time capsule. There’s no commentary, no subversion, no punchline of any kind. It’s just an excuse to license a stupid novelty song. Unless your definition of comedy is just the sight of Asian women rapping, this is nothing more than a four-minute diversion for its own sake. It eventually leads to one of the best moments in the film, but the two points are unrelated, and the reveal could have easily been handled differently. In essence, it’s a Family Guy cutaway gag without the actual gag. I can form a mental image of Tricia Takanawa saying, “This is even better than that time my friends and I did Cardi B,” but that’s all it is, an image. It’s not even presented in an unorthodox way that might draw out laughs. It’s just a sudden music video for no reason.
And again, if you do something with the reference, then it’s fine, even if it doesn’t necessarily resonate with everyone in the room. Compare this to some of the music-related bits from, say, Ted, to keep this somehow under Seth MacFarlane’s umbrella. There are three major moments I remember along this thematic line. In a party scene, the titular bear sings “Only Wanna Be With You” by Hootie and the Blowfish on a karaoke machine. Not only does MacFarlane impersonate Darius Rucker’s voice through Ted, he also makes a joke about how a lot of 90s songs have slurred lyrics that you can imitate by just intonating the vowel sounds. He then demonstrates the premise. Is it the funniest thing ever? No, but at least there’s a genuine gag with what he’s doing. Similarly, Mark Wahlberg sings, of all things, “All Time High,” the theme song from Octopussy, as a failed romantic gesture, with the humor coming from the sheer absurdity of the choice, Wahlberg’s horrible singing voice (for the scene, anyway; I assume he has some vocal talents or he wouldn’t have had a Funky Bunch), and Ted’s side commentary that it’s “Still better than Katy Perry.” Finally, there’s a whole subplot about Ted and Johnny’s love of the 1980 Flash Gordon film, its theme song by Queen, and the inclusion of Sam Jones in a cameo. Your mileage may vary, but all of these are objectively jokes, constructed to be humorous. Pretending to be a K-pop group doing “WAP” in a straight up manner, on the other hand, is just saying, “Hey, remember this thing that was popular for a hot minute three years ago? LAUGH!”
When it comes to the train scene, the problem is inverted, as the sequence sets up future laughs, but there’s nothing truly funny in the moment because the joke is too forced. While searching for an empty compartment on a train to the adoption agency’s town, Audrey settles for one with only one occupant, an American named Jess (Meredith Hagner). She’s clearly on edge, and everyone but Audrey senses that something’s amiss. When Jess goes into the corridor, she sees police searching for contraband, so in a panic she blows cocaine onto all of her new seatmates, declares that they’re now drug dealers just like her, and a mad rush ensues to swallow or keister all of her wares.
The hijinks on display at least attempt to have some comedy, mostly in the over-the-top nature of everyone’s sudden, drug-induced frenzy, but there’s no logic to any of it. There are police banging on the door and yelling into the compartment, so clearly they can hear everything going on. You have three women who all speak Mandarin, and thus can tell the cops exactly what happened, and while they might be delayed or inconvenienced, nothing untoward would happen to them. There’s probably even security camera footage to corroborate everything they say. But because Audrey gets worried about the abstract idea of “getting in trouble,” the easiest and most obvious solution is never entertained.
This is because the scene serves a narrative purpose first and a comedic one second, but is still played like a full-on gag as if it’s trying to meet some nebulous “jokes per minute” quota. The story needs the group to get sidetracked, so the resolution is that they get kicked off the train and Jess magically absconds with their luggage and passports (again, no explanation as to how). There are some genuinely side-splitting moments that happen as a consequence of this, but in the moment it feels like an afterthought to hide the plot contrivance.
The other story function is thankfully much more germane, and that’s to demonstrate some of Audrey’s inherent biases and further confuse and develop her personal journey. As Lolo and the others point out, Audrey was instantly trusting of a white, blonde, American girl because that’s who she most identifies with, given her upbringing. She’s concerned about her identity and heritage, wondering just who she is, and in one of her first tests, she ignores glaring red flags for the sake of seeing someone she deems more conventional. It’s the first of many poignant moments that earns the film a massively unexpected degree of pathos in the back half. Truly the emotional payoff of the story catches you off guard and navigates some fairly murky territory with a deft and empathetic touch. I just wish that in this case the scene could have better balanced the humor with the insight — or done away with the chuckles altogether — rather than feeling like an obligatory shoehorn to try to look edgy, especially when there are plenty of other moments that feel far more natural with their raunchy guffaws. The attempts at zaniness in this sequence just feel tacked on.
Still, on the whole this movie is great. It’s often hilarious, sneakily profound, and is a testament to the winding roads we all take to find our inner peace. Yes, the plot is fairly paint-by-numbers, but there are more than enough gut-busting gags to make an audience overlook the basic framework. The fact that you might just find yourself catching a feeling or two thanks to the all-in performances of the cast is just an amazing bonus.
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