On paper, Adele Lim’s Joy Ride reads like a promise of a new Asian American classic: a raunchy international vacation comedy, unfolding at the nexus of several different cultural experiences. It’s the kind of film this moment in Hollywood representation has been charging towards, with its uptick in studio movies featuring all or mostly East Asian actors and creatives. That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, the movie rarely finds its footing, despite the energy and effervescence its actors bring to the screen.
Lolo Chen (Sherry Cola) and Audrey Sullivan (Ashley Park) have been friends since they were the only two Asian girls growing up in their quiet, mostly white, and intentionally generic American suburb. They also live together as adults—rather, Lolo works on her sexually provocative art installations in Audrey’s garage while she’s away at her big-wig law job—but the precipice of adulthood threatens to yank their lives further in different directions. Unbeknownst to Lolo, their upcoming trip to Beijing serves as a chance for Audrey to impress her bosses and move to L.A. Audrey, the adopted Chinese daughter of white parents, has always excelled in every department, while the far less successful Lolo has played the part of her protector and cultural guide, since her father is Chinese and her mother is Chinese American. There’s a sweetness and absurdity to Joy Ride at first, which sees Lolo meeting Ashley for the first time as kids and punching her racist bully on the playground, before delightfully raising her middle fingers for their class picture. However, it’s a delicate balance the film seldom manages to recreate.
The rave reactions to Joy Ride’s South by Southwest premiere (by Asian and non Asian viewers alike) have been followed by widespread excitement. It is, after all, a film that allows its four Asian American leads—three of them women, one of them nonbinary— the novel opportunity to let loose and luxuriate in risqué material that never apologizes for itself (it’s also the rare modern studio comedy in which a recurring joke builds to a great punchline involving full-frontal nudity). Given the larger context of cultural expectation, and the way shame is often foisted upon Asian femininity, there’s a sense of liberation to be found within the movie’s elevator pitch alone. However, this conceptual boldness often finds itself at odds with haphazard filmmaking. Its four leads are constantly pitted in situations primed for character-centric laughs, but the movie’s messy assemblage of half-baked, interchangeable improv both stunts its humor and obscures the genuine tale of identity at its core.
Penned by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, the story moves quickly on to the leading duo’s international excursion. It’s a business trip for Audrey—not to mention, her first time in China since she was adopted as a baby—but a family reunion for Lolo, for which her awkward, K-Pop-loving cousin Vanessa, a.k.a. “Deadeye” (Sabrina Wu) tags along. While in Beijing, they also meet up with Audrey’s former college roommate, Kat (Stephanie Hsu), now a Chinese soap opera actress engaged to her chiseled but uber-religious himbo co-star (Desmond Chaim), which requires a heavy amount of truth-bending when it comes to her promiscuous past. Tensions soon fly between Lolo and Kat—Audrey’s besties from different points in her life, who now feel in competition—with the characters having no way of leaving each other’s orbits once convenient circumstances force them to track down Audrey’s birth mother in a nearby town.
This search eventually leads them to Seoul, providing the American quartet with a multitude of different Asian backdrops against which the film asks questions about their place in the world. For Audrey, the dilemma of her identity remains central as someone adjacent to whiteness in both her personal and professional lives, and yet someone who can never escape the specter of casual anti-Asianness at home. However, while the latter manifests as well-meaning questions from her white boss (Timothy Simons) and stray jabs from Lolo—whose career inertia has turned her bitter—the jokes quickly run themselves into the ground. They fail to work in tandem with the characters, seldom acting as cause for either reflection or pushback. No punchline ever feels like part of a cascading effect, whether to build story, or simply to set up some later comedic payoff. The result is akin to a series of lightly connected sketches, which could be re-ordered at random without losing very much.
The verbal jousting generally shoots off in a dozen directions at once, with the edit cutting rapidly to keep up with what feels like impromptu dialogue the actors came up with on set. This approach works only on rare occasions, like when the four leads become briefly involved with a local American drug dealer (Meredith Hagner) and have to help her evade Chinese authorities by snorting all her cocaine. The film’s brisk aesthetic finally finds its purpose by embodying the scene’s high-octane, farcical tone, but this feels less like intentional comedic precision, and more like a case of a broken clock being accidentally right. Every other scene plays the same way too, offering few beats or pauses for either punchlines or the serious moments to land.
Sometimes, a character’s body language (or the way they enter or exit the frame) will elicit a chuckle, but Lim—in her directorial debut—mostly fails to channel her performers’ high energy through her filmmaking. She shoots them in static single shots that fail to emphasize or highlight any aspect of their personality, rather than capturing their interpersonal dynamics either through group shots or story-driven editing. Where similar comedies like Bridesmaids and Girls Trip successfully balanced comedic and dramatic tones, allowing them breathing room even when there was considerable overlap, Joy Ride opens the floodgates to all modes of comedy and drama at once, rendering the actors’ rapid-fire delivery more grating than engrossing or fun. It’s chaos without control.
There are minor highlights along the way—a particularly raunchy, cross-cut scene of three of the four leads giving into sexual temptation borders on a masterstroke of exciting escalation—but the more the story unfolds, the more serious it becomes, and the less opportunities it has to take full advantage of its super-charged ensemble. The cast all seem intent on bringing their experiences to the table (for instance, Cola as a bisexual woman, and Wu as a nonbinary artist), but the film affords them few opportunities to do so, and seldom lets any of their characters exist beyond the broad strokes of their prescribed “types.” Granted, those types have rarely appeared in Hollywood studio films—especially Deadeye, a genderqueer character likely on the autism spectrum, who just wants to have a good time—but the stories of who they are become less important than what they’re doing in a given moment, and what they’re doing always feels like the product of a hasty first draft.
Perhaps the most unfortunate disconnect caused by Lim’s chaotic aesthetic approach is the characters’ relationship to the world around them. As Asian Americans, they’re frequently placed (by Americans and Asians alike) into reductive boxes that remove all detail and nuance from their cultural identities. Given the film’s slapdash assembly, it in turn reduces its Chinese and South Korean settings (and supporting characters) to nearly anonymous backdrops in much the same way, embodying the western gaze the movie so often tries to refute. Eventually, Joy Ride does reveal hints of a genuinely moving tale once Audrey comes face to face with parts of her history from which she’d been separated. But by the time this happens, late into the movie’s 95-minute runtime, there’s little room for it to inform any ongoing laughs or dramatic tensions.
The idea of four young Asian performers being allowed to let loose in an unapologetically filthy Hollywood comedy sounds boundary-pushing. But the result is unfortunately rote and traditional in its conception of filth, comedy, and even boundaries. There are scattered jokes that feel distinctly by and for Asian Americans, but they’re little more than winking, superficial references without the substance to make them truly meaningful—or, more importantly for a comedy, truly raucous.
Published on July 5, 2023