Take four very different women. Send them on a trip to China. Add cultural comedy, sex jokes, and a dash of interpersonal conflict. Mix liberally. That’s Joy Ride.
The opening scene of Joy Ride quickly establishes that Audrey Sullivan (Ashley Park) and Lolo Chen (Sherry Cola) became besties when they first met as children. Audrey and her adoptive parents Mary (Annie Mumolo) and Joe Sullivan (David Denmans) recently relocated to a small, predominantly white town and the two girls bond on the playground when Lolo punches a racist little boy.
Flash forward to the present day and the two women are still besties, but they’re at very different places in their lives. Lolo is a struggling artist who makes sexually provocative art and lives in Audrey’s garage, while the latter woman is on the partner-track at her law firm.
The plot kicks in when Audrey’s boss sends her to China to meet with Ronny Chieng‘s Chao, essentially guaranteeing her a promotion if she closes the deal. Since her Chinese isn’t up to task, Audrey brings along Lolo as a translator; her College roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu), now a successful soap star, will meet up with them there (much to Lolo’s chagrin). Rounding out the foursome is Lolo’s cousin, Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) whom Audrey considers “weird” because she’s introverted, socially awkward and big into Internet nerd culture.
Joy Ride gets plenty of mileage out of the fact that Caucasian characters perceive Audrey as non-white, while Chinese characters only see her that way. As a result, Audrey feels caught in between worlds: her boss treats her like a token minority but Audrey has internalized racism (for example: she’s never dated a Chinese man and her food and entertainment choices are clearly coded as White).
Lolo, by comparison, is incredibly confident in herself and her background. She has her own struggles, though, principally that she doesn’t want – or see the need for – anything to change. Audrey hasn’t told Lolo that her promotion will require her to relocate to LA without Lolo.
The fact that Kat does know this fact plays into the narrative’s rivalry between the two as they both vie for Audrey’s attention. It’s ripe with potential, though surprisingly this doesn’t play into the narrative as strongly as the first act would have you think.
Things get dicey when Audrey gets very drunk at her meeting with Chao, who insists that he must know where she’s from if they’re going to go into business. Lolo’s spontaneous response – that Audrey’s birth mother will accompany her to Chao’s party later that week – immediately creates a ticking clock, sending the foursome spiralling on an unexpected detour to find the missing matriarch.
Road trip comedies often feature unexpected interactions with unique supporting characters that derail characters’ progress and Joy Ride is no different. An encounter with a drug dealer (Search Party‘s Meredith Hagner) on a high speed train immediately earns the film its R-rating as drugs get stuffed into every orifice, passports are stolen, and, eventually results in a sexy overnight with multiple members of China’s basketball team (the comedic highlight of the film).
From there Joy Ride slows down to introduce Lolo’s extended family, temporarily pausing the string of outrageous gags so that Audrey can experience the joys of community and cultural acceptance. It’s a good reprieve that reinforces some of the film’s core ideas; it also marks the turning point of the film before an unexpected plot development completely alters the narrative.
While screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao never shy away from ridiculous set pieces that stretch credulity, including some great sight gags when when the girls disguise themselves as pop stars, the revelation that Audrey learns about her birth mother, combined with the women’s tenuous situation in a foreign country, requires a huge suspension of disbelief that doesn’t entirely work.
This sets up a wobbly third act filled with the usual misunderstandings, reconciliations, and compulsory feel good ending, but the film never fully recovers its first act propulsive energy. It’s as though Joyride is uncertain how to balance the jokes, (cultural) commentary and heartfelt messaging, resulting in an uneven back half with both pacing and tone issues. It’s messy, but not funny enough to justify the mess.
Thankfully this cast is more than game for whatever Chevapravatdumrong and Hsiao throw at them, including a ton of physical humour that works excessively well. Director Adele Kim and editor Nena Erb get great mileage out cross-cutting between three different sexual situations between the group (minus Deadeye) and the basketball players.
Special kudos go to Hsu, in particular, for playing against type. The Everything, Everywhere, All At Once and American Born Chinese actress is fantastic as the sexually frustrated character who has been forced to tramp down on her carnivorous urges to placate her religious fiancé, Clarence (Desmond Chiam).
Least successful is Wu, who mostly yearns for Audrey’s friendship and makes mildly uncomfortable comments (the character is possibly coded as ASD and asexual, though nothing is confirmed). While Wu clearly has comedic chops, the character has nothing to do; Deadeye is nowhere near as entertaining as the other three, which is surprising considering that Park is required to play the film’s strait-laced, “all business” protagonist.
One simply wishes that the film were more willing to be outrageous for longer. There are several big, gross-out, and/or sexually provocative set pieces which clearly demonstrate Joy Ride‘s comedic potential, but the film feels reluctant to let the four women go unhinged for too long. There’s a curious level of restraint; it’s as though the film wants to acknowledge that Chinese women can be raucous, outrageous, and sexual…but only for a little bit.
There are glimpses of a revolutionary sex comedy/female empowerment road trip movie on display here, but Joy Ride is too tentative to let its characters’ freak flags fly. It just doesn’t quite go far enough. 3.5/5
Joy Ride is in theaters July 7