By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
There’s something delightfully off-putting about gross-out comedies – the kind of movies that have you raising your eyebrows and questioning whether the movie has gone too far. They’re never to be watched with parents, you need to be careful what you’re eating as to avoid vomiting, and all kinds of bodily fluids are on the cards for visual gags. All of this applies to Joy Ride.
Joy Ride, the directorial debut from Adele Lim that premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, is the latest intersection of studio comedy and gross-out humor bonanza. The film follows childhood best friends and Asian-American adoptees with white parents Audrey and Lolo, played by Ashley Park and Sherry Cola respectively. Audrey, an attorney, is tasked with closing a business deal in China in order to seal a promotion and takes her best friend Lolo to the East with her. Tagging along is Lolo’s K-pop-obsessed cousin Deadeye, played by Sabrine Wu, and eventually Academy Award nominee Stephanie Hsu as Kat, a former college roommate of Audrey’s. What proceeds is an outlandish, rude, and surprisingly heartfelt journey that touchingly addresses themes of friendship and identity and has you laughing out of sheer shock in equal measure.
The effectiveness of Joy Ride’s humor will largely depend on one’s tolerance for gross-out humor. Joy Ride makes the likes of Bridesmaids and Girls Trip tame in comparison as it is unafraid to go beyond what is considered ‘over-the-top’ to deliver a range of shocking laughs. Just know ahead of time that Joy Ride is willing to go the extra mile for its big gags. These jokes are largely hit-or-miss, occasionally eliciting the description ‘cringe-worthy’ for the wrong reasons.
Where the film is far more effective is when it departs from its crude, heightened humor in favor of more subtle jokes and poignant cultural commentary. Joy Ride takes two friends, who are of a minority racial background in the United States and puts them in and among people who look like them in China. But, it isn’t that simple as Audrey and Lolo uniquely were adopted and raised by White parents, adding another layer to the kinds of comedy and commentary the movie gets out of the central characters’ intersectional identities. The film excels when it points out and pokes fun at topics not frequently explored in comedies, such as prejudice towards one’s own racial group or not knowing a country’s language as you were raised elsewhere. A particularly memorable scene involves Audrey choosing not to sit next to Chinese travelers in favor of sitting next to a blonde American, who just happens to be a drug dealer. In this sense, the crude humor is the primary selling point of Joy Ride, but its inclination for introspection in its humor proves most memorable.
Anchoring the film is the core friendship between Audrey and Lolo. Distinctly bonded together early in life as being among the few Asian-Americans in their predominantly white American town, the two friends have an endearing and beautifully natural friendship. Ashley Park, who has played roles in the Netflix shows Beef and Emily in Paris, plays the less chaotic of the duo. What begins as a business trip to seal a promotion soon becomes a journey to find Aubrey’s birth mother. Park plays the character given the most substantial arc and development in Joy Ride, although her relationship with Sherry Cola’s Lola character is integral to the film. Park and Cola have excellent chemistry and collective comedic timing, so much so that it’s difficult to envision how Joy Ride would have worked without one of these actresses. As the film begins to resolve its main plot and more pointedly address its themes of identity and belonging, it becomes more tonally confused, but the performances of Park and Cola help manage a (mostly) healthy blend of laughs and tears.
Joining Audrey and Lolo are Sabrina Wu as Deadeye and Stephanie Hsu as Kat. Wu is certainly the oddest of this quartet (think the strangeness of Zach Galifianakis’ character in The Hangover compared to his three friends), bringing an uncanny, deadpan energy to one of the film’s most captivating characters. Stephanie Hsu, meanwhile, is just off of her Academy Award nominated performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once, playing Audrey’s college roommate and current soap opera star Kat. Kat has a rich history of sexual partners and encounters, which is at odds with her being engaged to a Christian man saving himself for marriage. Kat’s decidedly conflicting past and present converge on arguably the film’s biggest laugh, again one that will likely raise eyebrows, shake one’s head, and bewilderingly laugh along all at once.
Setting Joy Ride apart more than anything though is its genuine heart. Tonal inconsistencies aside, Joy Ride will undoubtedly strike a chord with anyone who has had long-standing friendships or has tried to navigate an identity crisis in their emerging adulthood. There is an endearing quality about Joy Ride seldom found in modern comedies – it’s just unfortunate that some of the film’s bigger jokes don’t quite land and, in turn, impede upon the film’s emotional poignancy.
Joy Ride proves that the summer of 2023 may be struggling (both financially and critically) with its big-budget, CGI-heavy action flicks, but is finding success with its larger-than-life studio comedies. The directorial debut from Adele Lim tells a surprisingly endearing story about identity, belonging, and friendship squeezed between a series of outrageous, gross-out gags with varied effectiveness. Finding greater success with its more subtle humor and cultural commentary, Joy Ride triumphs from a terrific comedic quartet, who have a draw that rivals the four stars of The Hangover movies. Each of the core group of friends brings a different flavor of humor and heart to the mix, but Ashley Park stands out as a young woman whose pursuit of a promotion turns into a pursuit of her birth mother. If you’ve grown tired of the type of blockbusters that overpopulate the megaplex at this time of year, look no further than Joy Ride for a rollicking 90-minute thrill ride.