Film Review: Joy Ride is a surprising journey of shock humour and emotional substance

With No Hard Feelings reminding audiences that, yes, adult-aimed comedies do in fact belong on a big screen, and the streaming model doesn’t have to be a singular option now that we have shifted primarily out of the pandemic mentality, Adele Lim‘s raunchy Joy Ride continues that temperament that the big screen will always benefit movies intended for a raucous reception.

After premiering (and wowing) audiences earlier this year at SXSW, Joy Ride‘s initial reaction seemed to guarantee it a look-in at the cineplexes, and though a streaming service could have snapped this one up, where it would have been consumed, rightfully acclaimed, but then quite easily dismissed, the creatives saw this as a theatrical experience – one where the collective reaction speaks to the film’s crowd state-of-mind; in short, seeing this in a packed house only enhances its comedic sensibility.

Beginning in 1998, Joy Ride easily sets up the friendship between young Audrey (Lennon Yee) and Lolo (Milana Wan) when the former’s parents (David Denman and Annie Mumolo) ask the latter’s (Kenneth Liu and Debbie Fan) if they’re Chinese; “Yes, but we speak English” is their response, hoping to immediately put the predominant white neighbourhood at ease.  It’s a more innocent question than Lolo’s parents may assume as Audrey is adopted, and her parents hope that perhaps their daughters both being Chinese will easily bond them across their adolescence.

A quick montage of Audrey and Lolo’s friendship catches us up to speed for the present day, easily letting us in on their dynamic and that Audrey (Ashley Park) adopted an overachieving-like personality to combat the racism she felt was aimed at her by her peers, whilst Lolo (Sherry Cola) followed a more creative, care-free path, which played into her no fucks-like attitude that helped shield Audrey over the years.  Audrey, a lawyer, has seemingly returned the favour for the years of Lolo’s emotional support by letting her live in her garage as she follows her passion of being a sex-positive artist; which basically means Lolo’s art is heavy on showcasing both male and female genitalia.

Because Audrey has never felt entirely connected to her Chinese heritage, Lolo suggests that perhaps she track down her birth mother, and as the two are venturing on a business trip to Beijing – Audrey needs to close a lucrative deal and has enlisted Lolo as her translator – it seems like a perfect opportunity to incorporate an emotional detour.  It’s a business trip first for the cautious, by-the-rules Audrey, which only means Lolo’s invitation to her eccentric, K-Pop-loving cousin, Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), isn’t met with enthusiasm.  Offsetting her own discomfort with Lolo’s, Audrey has arranged to meet up with her college bestie Kat (Stephanie Hsu), a former wild-child and now popular actress on a Chinese television program called The Emperor’s Daughter.

By the time the mismatched foursome have finally come together on the set of Kat’s show – where they make quite a startling discovery about the sex life (or lack thereof) between herself and her co-star, Clarence (Desmond Chiam) – Lim’s script (co-written with American Dad scribe Teresa Hsiao and Family Guy‘s Cherry Chevapravatdumrong) has already laid the foundation with a sense of humour that happily flits between intelligent, introspective wit and a wild sense of irreverence.  It only then descends further into humorous chaos as their plans are practically thwarted at every turn, resulting in drug taking, thousand-year-old-egg shots, a memorable impromptu performance of Cardi B’s “WAP” and, perhaps likely to be the film’s biggest talking point, a vaginal tattoo that’s revealed in the most unlikeliest of ways; safe to say there’s one camera angle you won’t forget anytime soon.

Even though Lim’s structure very much leans into the formula of the road movie – comparisons to the likes of The Hangover, Bridesmaids and Girl’s Trip are inevitable – it never plays against the movie as a whole.  The humour mostly lands, and whilst it often aims for something of shock value, the fact that what takes place is often genuinely funny (and stems from a place of reality) means we, as an audience, are more than happy to go along for the ride; plus, any movie that literally breaks men during what can only be described as a sex montage is A-OK in our books.

The film’s emotional third can’t help but also rely on genre tropes – the friends briefly fall out and there’s a public speech to make it all better – but the individual personalities of each character consistently elevate Joy Ride beyond its surface level simplicities.  As well, within the film’s surprisingly effective emotionality is both a welcome commentary on the different attributes of various Asian cultures, an additive that is sure to equally resonate and open eyes for those watching, and a beautiful sense of closure for Audrey regarding her heritage that is surely to be universally potent.

On the surface Joy Ride has all the makings of a raunchy sex comedy, one that revels in bad behaviour, and, without question, Lim supplies such humour, but the script is also incredibly generous and respectful to its lead quartet, all of whom are game with what it asks of them, but consistently remain in control.  Park, Hsu, Cola, and Wu are all individually comedically capable performers, and the film allows them as both individuals and a collective to showcase their impeccable comedic timing and their emotional grasp.  Yes, Joy Ride is a wild time, but it’s not making flippant turns towards its destination.  There’s substance within its journey, and when paired with the crudest of humour it truly proves a ride worth taking.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Joy Ride is screening in Australian theatres from July 6th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.