It’s probably been long enough since the releases of The Hangover (in 2009) and Bridesmaids (in 2011) that we can call the new film Joy Ride (in theaters July 7) an homage rather than a flagrant ripoff. It’s as if Joy Ride, from director Adele Lim and writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, is the happy Zillenial child of those two blockbusters, a processing and reworking that stands proudly in its own present day.
Which doesn’t, unfortunately, mean that the movie is as composed and confident as its forebears. While it contains plenty of good jokes smartly delivered by talented actors, Joy Ride suffers from a conflict of self. The film never quite commits to its bit, perhaps based on the assumption that comedy these days must be tempered with niceness and lesson-learning. Bridesmaids certainly has sappy moments towards the end, but Joy Ride‘s last 20 or so minutes are almost straight drama; the movie all too willingly cedes its anarchic pep to the demands of sentiment.
That is an at least partially understandable choice. Light and wild as the movie often is, there is serious matter at its core. Ashley Park plays Audrey, a striving lawyer living in her hometown, a quaint and largely white exurb of Seattle. As a baby, Audrey was adopted from China by white parent; her only connection to her Chinese roots has come through her oldest and best friend, Lolo (Sherry Cola), the only other Asian kid in town. Theirs was a friendship of convenience, in its way, but also genuinely loving and protective.
As is required in these movies, Audrey’s careerist tightness is offset by Lolo’s free-wheeling hedonism. She’s an artist who makes highly sexualized kitsch: tongue-lapping lucky cats, a playground model in which the slide is a phallus and the sandbox is a breast. She’s caustic and lost in her post-adolescence. Audrey has it together where Lolo most certainly does not. Yet Lolo is at least sure of her Chinese-American identity—she speaks Mandarin and has a Relationship with her extended family back in China.
That stark difference comes to a head when Audrey brings Lolo on an important business trip to Beijing, where Audrey must secure a big deal in order to make partner at her firm. Lolo is there to translate, but of course she’s also there to shake Audrey out of her white-bread (and white bred, I suppose) stiffness. Soon enough, Audrey and Lolo—along with Audrey’s college pal, Kat (Stephanie Hsu), an actress on a period Chinese drama, and Lolo’s oddball cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu)—find themselves on a wacky trek across China (and, later, elsewhere) to track down Audrey’s birth mother.
On that quest, the women do lots of drugs and have bouts of aggressive sex. There’s vomit, there’s gallons of booze, there’s a camera shot oriented to look like we are peeking out from someone’s vagina. Joy Ride is determined to be an unadulterated raunchfest, daring in its go-there-ness and triumphant in its positioning of Asian women at the center of such a madcap romp.
At its best, Joy Ride merrily makes a case for itself. There is both an appreciated specificity and a giddy broadness to the humor, wry and weird at once. Park is a striking lead, giving a welcome edge to Audrey’s Type A brittleness. Cola is similarly adept at modulating her character, knowing when to rein in Lolo’s garrulous energy and when to set it loose. Hsu, hot off an Academy Award nomination for Everything Everywhere All at Once, has perhaps the most explicit material to handle; she seems game for anything.
Lim, making her directorial debut, adeptly manages the film’s most antic bits. And she makes the film look good—a far rarer quality these days than it should be. But Lim loses her grasp on the film when it tilts into emotional territory, as Audrey learns more about her heritage and cracks emerge in her friendships. Joy Ride almost seems to forget that it’s a comedy, its whizzing verve slowing into a mushy walk across the finish line. The film’s thematic concerns—identity, ambition, the uncertainty of early adulthood—are fertile territory, and the movie needn’t have been all silly jokes all the time. But Joy Ride goes perilously slack as it reaches its conclusion, breaking the amiably profane spell cast at the film’s manic peak.
Still, here’s hoping the movie makes a bunch of money and leads to more rowdy comedies in theaters and more work for all involved. There’s great stuff in Joy Ride, the jumbled atoms of a classic comedy all waiting to be gathered into a cohesive whole. If they didn’t quite get it together on this outing, they certainly prove their potential.