The late 90s and 2000s were the golden age of gross-out comedy, reaching its peak (or nadir, in many ways) with The Hangover in 2009. And while a lot of the films that made it such a classic era for the genre don’t hold up today (The Hangover watches like someone wrote as problematic a script as possible), the humor that defines them remains a powerful draw to audiences.
Joy Ride – an ensemble comedy starring Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, and Sabrina Wu, and directed by Adele Lim in her feature-length debut – delivers on all the classic gags and tropes we’ve come to expect. However, it does so with a fresh twist, and a lot more heart than viewers might expect considering the provocative nature of its first three quarters.
Joy Ride begins in the 90s, with a Chinese-American family moving into a leafy suburban town in Washington State, only to be asked by a white couple if their kids can play together. We soon see a cute, very non-white face poking into view from behind her white parents’ legs, and via an adorable – if not overly instructive – flashback sequence, we watch a friendship for the ages forged.
The adopted girl is Audrey (Park), and driven by a sense of dislocation, she becomes the sort of kid even a Tiger Mom would struggle to criticize, ending up as a big shot lawyer. Her friend Lolo (Cola), however, has taken a different path. Being more secure in her cultural identity allowed her to focus on her art, which is overtly sexual yet makes an important point about sex positivity, especially for Asian-Americans. Despite these differences, the two remain close.
Audrey has been selected by her boss — a sweary, non-PC lawyer (played brilliantly by Timothy Simons) who promises he’s an ally because he’s an equal-opportunity ass to the people around him — to go to Beijing and secure an important deal for their firm. Audrey, naturally, lied about her ability to speak Mandarin, and as a result is taking Lolo along with her to translate, setting the broad stroke of the narrative in motion.
At the airport, Lolo confesses that her cousin, the socially awkward, likely non-neurotypical Deadeye (Wu) is coming along with them, much to Audrey’s chagrin. When they land, they go to meet Audrey’s old college roommate and rival to Lolo for her platonic affections, Kat (Hsu), a famous movie star in China who it transpires was once as sex-positive as Lolo, but is currently engaged to an ultra-religious stud.
The newly formed quartet goes to a nightclub to meet Chao (Ronny Chieng), the businessman who Audrey needs to close the deal with. After a wild night of drinking, Chao tells Audrey he’s erring on the deal as he can’t do business with somebody who doesn’t know where they’re from, at which point Lolo interrupts to say Audrey is very close to her birth mother — a lie, but one needed to salvage her friend’s chances of closing the deal. For the sake of her job, Audrey now has to find her mom.
Soon after comes a raunchy sequence that confounds the usual stereotypes, focusing on female pleasure and a reminder that Asians (especially women) can very much be sexually permissive and forward-thinking, instead of shy, retiring objects to be used. However, all the pleasure comes at a cost: the girls have injured multiple members of a basketball team, meaning their ride is no longer willing to accommodate them.
Things take another turn when they get to the agency, inspiring a new wave of identity crisis to hit Audrey, not helped by Lolo’s previously welcoming family displaying some latent racism. This is where another pivotal scene comes in; where all of them dress up as K-Pop icons and perform a remixed version of “WAP.” However, it all ends in tears as Kat accidentally reveals a very inappropriately placed, and very big, tattoo, which snowballs into a big emotional blowout, and ultimately the need to mend fences.
So many parts of Joy Ride are brilliant, especially the comedy and performances from its leads. The gags come thick and fast, and are of all kinds: there’s the obvious provocative ones, hilarious yet incisive comments about cultural nuances, and even a few meta jokes that wouldn’t be out of place in Arrested Development (like the fact that Audrey ends up being Korean because the actor who plays her is, surely a comment on the very real trope that white people think all East Asian folks look the same).
As a fan of short films, it pains to say the 90-minute runtime is a little too jam-packed, and on occasion the writing sometimes falls flat, even though its stars deliver charisma in spades. Whereas pointing out the obvious can be done in a way that’s still sharp (like in the novels of Percival Everrett or Weike Wang, who manage to say blatant things about race in ways that seem new and fresh), it is a little too on the nose here. However, that doesn’t detract from the film’s enjoyability.
With that said, thanks to its focus on non-white identity, the silly, snowflake criticisms from certain gross corners of the internet are already flooding in. Of course, these people are the first to complain that others are being “too sensitive” when criticisms about racial, sexual, and other stereotypes are made about their favorite “classics,” but in reality Joy Ride only has a handful of jokes at the expense of whiteness. Most of the “digs” at white culture are aimed more at Audrey and her “banana” nature, the most obvious manifestation of her confused upbringing.
Importantly, her adoptive parents are undoubtedly portrayed as positive forces, so accusations of anti-whiteness (or being anti-men, as Joy Ride does show some of them as sex objects) aren’t based in reality.
All in all, Joy Ride is a great addition to the gross-out humor canon, but equally manages to do what so many of those classics didn’t: show that their characters are flawed but redeemable, and well-rounded instead of stereotypes. In that sense, it also falls into the more recent trend of minority-led films that are great learning tools for audiences who don’t really have much contact with people of color. While it might not have the Oscar-winning potential of the current peak of that subgenre – Everything Everywhere All at Once – it’s definitely just as good at reminding audiences that yes, people are people no matter where their families are from.
Fresh takes, classic gags, and excellent performances from its leads elevate an occasionally clunky and very packed script into something well worth watching.
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