Adele Lim’s directorial debut, Joy Ride, is a raunchy comedy about friendship and heritage. It’s also the funniest movie in years.
Moviegoers don’t want to pay big screen prices to watch comedies these days. And can we blame them? The studio comedy has been all but relegated to the Netflix thumbnail, with theaters reserving most showtimes for blockbusters designed to satisfy a summer movie season stretched to last all year. But like some of the key comedies before it, Joy Ride has a secret weapon. The same weapon wielded by Girls Trip, Game Night, and Booksmart before it. The movie is actually funny.
OK, that’s not all Joy Ride has going for it, but studio comedies are far from the reliable moneymakers they once were. There’s a reason no live-action comedy in the last 8 years has managed to crack the top 25 comedies of all time at the domestic box office. It’s partly because audiences now look to sitcoms for laid-back, contemporary humor, and they expect at least a through-line of gags in your standard action flick. To make a mid-budget comedy without all the genre frills that entices people to theaters in 2023, said comedy has to be more than simply funny. It has to be smart. And Joy Ride is low-key genius.
But first, the premise. Joy Ride follows a young career-driven American named Audrey (Ashley Park), who travels to China on a business trip and brings her best friend Lolo (Sherry Cola) as an interpreter. Unlike Lolo, this is Audrey’s first time visiting China because she was adopted by white parents (David Denman and Annie Mumolo) and doesn’t have the same connection to the country. Lolo also drags along her socially awkward cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) and they quickly meet up with Audrey’s college roommate and actress Kat (Stephanie Hsu), who has a fierce Bridesmaids-esque rivalry with Lolo.
A manic misadventure movie for millennials.
It isn’t long before Lolo pushes Audrey into a secondary reason for visiting China: to track down her birth mother, whom she’s never met or had any contact with. Despite being called Joy Ride, these characters aren’t driving cars, but rather going on a wild excursion by train, boat, and even bigger boats. The film certainly earns its R-rating with a bursting of raunchy jokes that set it apart from more reserved play-it-safe comedies that want to keep things PG-13. It’s no surprise the producers include Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of Superbad and Pineapple Express fame.
The film also sneaks up on its audience with a bit of a tear-jerker moment toward the end and the ensemble chemistry is absolutely infectious. We already knew Hsu was the real deal after The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Everything Everywhere All at Once. But Joy Ride is just as powerful a showcase for these other actors who are clearly on the rise.
So, what makes Joy Ride so smart? Well, it really comes down to how the film accomplishes inclusivity. Yes, inclusivity, a trigger word for some of the most annoying people on the planet, but also a word used by entertainment entities to appease and pander, then run off and pivot the moment their stated inclusiveness and diversity gets challenged by those annoying people I mentioned.
Inclusivity (when done right) is a powerful tool for storytelling. Audiences want movies that are inclusive, or that tell stories they haven’t seen before about people they don’t get to see often on the big screen, especially when these people represent themselves. But it’s all too easy to make inclusivity in a movie come off like a bare-minimum checklist. Like it’s only there to sell tickets, not make meaningful connection.
“How do you know who you are?”
In the case of Joy Ride, the film isn’t inclusive because it “includes” Asian actors of various descent. It’s inclusive because it tells a story for Asian people that can still resonate with non-Asian people who are willing to meet the film where it’s at. This is actually harder to pull off than you may think because writing a comedy with humor that is both accessible and specific requires an extreme amount of care and judicious review. I have no doubt director Adele Lim (co-writer of Crazy Rich Asians) and screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsaio fine-tuned every single bit in this movie with surgical precision and placement. That they tossed jokes out constantly and punched up the good ones as ferociously as they could.
The result? It’s a movie constantly in conversation with both its Asian audience and its non-Asian audience, while never treating Asian people as a monolith and even making jokes that poke at that very misconception. For example, an early airport scene having fun with various Asian stereotypes is a particular high note in this regard. It works because the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese people watching will get the joke, obviously, but everyone else can easily see what’s so funny about these differences even if they weren’t aware of these differences in the first place.
A subversive “be yourself” message.
Throughout the film, Audrey’s friends consistently make fun of her for being more “white” than Chinese, and the gag slowly morphs into a severe anxiety for the character moving into its final act. Audrey’s identity crisis comes down to what “inclusivity” really means to her. She’s the kind of person who everyone tells to “be herself” but then everyone seems to resent her for just being herself.
If anything, the film is all about how different people can find that comfort and confidence in who they really are without having to surround themselves with people-pleasing clones of themselves. If Joy Ride can do one amazing, positive thing for many Americans, it’s further dispel myths about the “model minority” while making them bust a gut in the process. That’s the sort of thing that can save the Hollywood studio comedy. Smart writing that has a point underneath the juvenile irony. People want to see that sort of authenticity with their friends in a public setting, especially when they know that authenticity promises actual joy.
Joy Ride opens in theaters everywhere on July 7. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Lionsgate. Featured image is a custom illustration.