There is a moment in Adele Lim’s Joy Ride where a basketball, Theragun and an internally exploded condom full of cocaine come together to shatter a man’s pelvis during an impromptu sex act on a hotel gym’s floor with Oscar-nominated actor Stephanie Hsu.
Not only is it far from the raunchiest scene in the movie, it might not even be in her character’s top three.
Watching the Lionsgate-distributed, Seth Rogen-produced new comedy, it’s impossible to ignore the heavy gross-out content its four stars dole out during its relatively scant 95-minute run time.
As we follow them across the U.S., then China, then a final belated stop a touch farther east, it’s all you can do to wade through the admittedly thin plot to pull out a quote actually fit to print. (My favourite? “He’s a rat!” Uttered in response to lead Audrey’s pathetic attempt to prove her attraction to Asian guys by pointing out her occasional feelings for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ Splinter.)
But as was argued to me in a series of emailed essay responses to my Indiana Jones review (some with a similar, if less light-hearted, fondness for profanity), you can’t judge a fish by how well it climbs a tree. So if you’re expecting this fish to pass the Hays Code, you’ll be disappointed. But if your measuring stick is how many times the film succeeds in getting the audience to cry-laugh at swearing children and vagina tattoos, then this guppie is a winner.
Joy Ride‘s success isn’t found in its character arcs or narrative — at least not in the first two acts, which both skew closer to an SNL skit or Keenen Wayans movie than, say, The Lobster or Hsu’s past smash Everything Everywhere All at Once. But the sheer rapid-fire, no-holds-barred style and expert delivery of its many jokes unequivocally demand laurels in a genre more unforgiving of mediocrity than any other.
Because if highbrow comedies (or, even better, dramas) don’t make you laugh, they can at least pretend to be smart. A movie like Joy Ride, meanwhile, makes no attempt to cloak its intentions behind depth, metaphor or even good taste — a quiet theatre would only mean a failure. And if the decibel level at my theatre is any indication, that’s far from the case here.
Writer-director Adele Lim and writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao opted for a paint-by-numbers plot scaffolding. In the nearly runaway train-paced opening, we meet childhood best friends Audrey and Lolo — played as adults by Ashley Park and Sherry Cola, respectively. While Lolo was raised by her biological parents, who still have connections with their extended family in China, Audrey was adopted from China by white parents and has no connection with her blood relatives.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Audrey is a lawyer while Lolo gets by making sex and body-positive statues of dubious quality. But while Audrey’s life is chugging along fine on paper, Lolo is the one who’s more sure of herself — something that comes to a head shortly after the two leave for China on a work assignment for Audrey to close an unspecific — but necessarily dire — deal with a client.
Along with Lolo’s tag-along cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) and Audrey’s university best friend, now famous actor Kat (Hsu), the four soon get turned around Hangover style after a misunderstanding means they lose their passports and need to track down Audrey’s birth mother somewhere in China, then present her to the client by the end of the week.
Update to the buddy film
The genre-obvious ticking-clock imperative is complicated by the conflicted emotions their cross-country scavenger hunt brings up in Audrey — with every century egg, cheongsam and judgmental local she comes across, she gets more confused and doubtful about where she belongs.
It’s a somewhat interesting twist on the kind of plot lines we’ve seen in Bridesmaids, Superbad and, of course, The Hangover, films with which Joy Ride has already been tirelessly compared — although Joy Ride‘s overly compressed jokes-per-minute rate makes its storyline feel more like an afterthought and closer to Good Boys territory.
Nevertheless, Joy Ride follows the familiar formulas of those hit buddy films to a tee — an ensemble cast desperately trying to hold up a lie long enough to present some favourable third party with whatever MacGuffin they promised, the lead character playing the straight man tortured by their own manipulations until they accept themselves for who they really are.
The characters in Joy Ride are made up of the same archetypes, too. While the numbers vary, outside of the main character there is the requisite lifelong friend and foil, whose frustrating immaturity is eventually shown to be a paragon of authenticity our lead was too blind to see. Alongside them, the inept, absurd, abnormal and lovable McLovin-type is there both to drive our characters apart and eventually bring them together — while operating as the biggest marketing draw (for Joy Ride, Wu’s Deadeye is literally labelled “the chaotic one” in promotional materials).
But as predictable as its building blocks are, the whole is more shockingly funny than the sum of its parts. While B-grade buddy films tend to have one or two standouts, virtually every person given a line in Joy Ride knocks it out of the park. There is not a slouch in the bunch, even if Park’s role as lead forces her to play down the ridiculousness. Lolo and Deadeye more than make up for that, with Kat eventually coming through in a show-stopping Cardi B-inspired musical number that culminates in a rare comedic example of full-frontal female nudity in film.
And as rare as it is, that was Joy Ride’s intent. Its whole execution exceeds the bounds of the genre it so clearly apes, as its punch-up jokes disprove the tired conceit that “you can’t joke about anything anymore.”
From Deadeye’s mocking of what amounts to Asian umarells — bent over elderly men and women walking around with their arms clasped behind their backs — to Lolo’s unending slew of jokes about sex and genitalia, Joy Ride pokes fun at both race and gender without ever making either the butt of the joke.
And while Forgetting Sarah Marshall‘s full-frontal male nudity and Sausage Party‘s essentially 90-minute penis joke get a pass, similar framing with non-binary and female characters of the kind that Joy Ride attempts often succumbs to knee-jerk hostile reactions from audiences scarred by Amy Schumer-fuelled political debates on acceptability and morality.
My advice to moviegoers is ignore those tired misdirections and, even if you feel like tapping out after the second barf scene, white knuckle it. When it comes to Joy Ride, the jokes justify the means.