Foul-Mouthed Joy Ride is a Gut-Busting Comedic Marvel
There is about a ten-minute stretch in director and co-writer Adele Lim’s terrific new comedy, Joy Ride, where I went from laughing so hard I was worried I was going to inadvertently spit out my popcorn to suddenly rummaging for tissue to wipe away a handful of authentic tears. The film goes from goofy, gut-busting, R-rated hysterics to shatteringly emotional, character-based dramatics at the drop of a hat, and with such deft precision that I was understandably taken by complete surprise.
Lim, best known for working on the scripts for Crazy Rich Asians and Raya and the Last Dragon, pulls out all the stops for her fearlessly foul-mouthed and uninhibited feature-length debut. This satire hits nearly every target it aims at, taking a humorous look at racism (cultural, familial, and internalized — no one is left out of the line of fire), sexism, misogyny, and gender representation with such pinpoint precision it’s almost flabbergasting. While not everything works, Lim’s effort still remains an uncouth, sidesplitting blast worthy of celebration, much like other female-driven comedies, such as Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, or Girls Trip.
Audrey Sullivan (Ashley Park) and Lolo Chen (Sherry Cola) are on their way to China. For Audrey, this will be her first trip to the country of her birth, as she was adopted as an infant by parents Mary (Annie Mumolo) and Joe (David Denman). And dang were they ecstatic when Lolo’s family moved to the Seattle suburb of White Hills when she was five years old. The duo have been practically tied at the hip since their playground introduction.
This is not a vacation, however, but a work trip. Audrey is a lawyer looking to close a massive business deal for her firm, and Lolo is there to serve as an interpreter. But events go quickly off the rails. Lolo’s K-pop-loving cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) has joined them and is consistently prone to say the wrong thing at the exact right time. Filling out their quartet is Audrey’s former college roommate (and current Chinese soap opera star) Kat (Stephanie Hsu), who’s going out of her way to conceal her promiscuous past from her deeply religious fiancé, Clarence (Desmond Chiam)
For reasons better not discussed in a review, the narrative’s central conflict revolves around an impromptu and calamitous road trip across China to help Audrey find her birth mother. The foursome encounter a wide variety of not terribly original obstacles, including getting thrown off a train for their behavior, having their passports stolen, and not having all their questions answered when they erroneously believe they’ve reached their final destination.
It’s how Lim handles all of this and the performances of the core quartet that make this film so special. This isn’t some Hangover clone, only featuring women instead of men. Thankfully, the director is determined to dig so much deeper than that, and she’s willing to do it in a sex-positive way that sometimes feel downright groundbreaking. Lim and co-writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao have composed a fearless screenplay that points almost as many fingers at the protagonists for their behavior as it does to almost everyone else in the film.
What’s even better: once things get rolling, the script does not wrap them up in a tidy bow. There’s still a happy ending, of course, but it’s not one the majority of viewers will likely have anticipated. These characters grow, change, and evolve, and that means not every hardship or misstep can be quickly or easily overcome. Mistakes have repercussions, and for Audrey and Lolo in particular, how they deal with the fallout of their actions adds a layer of warmth and humanity that filled my heart with joy.
The acting is universally stellar. Hsu does a divine job of showing the entire world that her Academy Award nomination for Everything Everywhere All at Once was hardly a fluke. Stand-up comedian Wu dominates many of their scenes with such deadpan ease that it’s impossible to believe this is their first major role. Cola shows all the signs of becoming an instantaneous comedic legend, and much like Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, or Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip, this is the type of star-making tour de force fans will be rhapsodically crowing about for decades.
But none of them can hold a candle to Park. Mostly known for her television work in programs like Beef and Emily in Paris, here she is like Helen Hunt knocking it out of the park and (and subsequently winning an Oscar) for As Good as It Gets. This is one of the best performances I’ll see this year, I pretty much guarantee it. The emotional dexterousness Park accomplishes cannot be understated or undersold. I was floored.
Like any comedy such as this, not all of the gags will land. There were also points when I admittedly did feel like Lim did cross some sort of vague, invisible line, and I’m sure my discomfort was unfortunately obvious to some of my fellow audience members. But this line is different for everyone, and Lim handles things with such confident authority that I’m sure it was my own internalized puritanism that had me awkwardly squirming in my seat.
And so I say, “So what!” to all of that. Joy Ride is laugh-out-loud funny. It features real, three-dimensional friendships that grow in strength and resonance. It has moments of genuine, empathetic honesty that are nothing short of divine. It features four spellbinding actors working in such exquisite tandem that I hope to see them all together again sooner rather than later.
To put it even more bluntly: I loved Joy Ride, and I’m ready to watch it again right this second. It’s marvelous.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)