In 1993, “The Joy Luck Club” made Hollywood history, proving to a skeptical — and let’s face it, racist — industry that there was mainstream demand for a culturally sensitive Chinese American ensemble drama. Three decades later, along comes “Joy Ride,” throwing sensitivity to the wind en route to obliterating any remaining barriers. Like “Girls Trip” with an all-Asian-American cast (and one nonbinary lead), the Seth Rogen-produced, hard-R road movie follows small-town besties Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) to Beijing, where they tackle everything from taboo tattoos to a devil’s threesome with all the gusto you’d hope or expect from “Crazy Rich Asians” co-writer Adele Lim’s directorial debut.
Lim’s filthy breakthrough builds on a long tradition of envelope-pushing Asian American comics. From Margaret Cho to Ali Wong to Awkwafina, there’s no shortage of raunchy, etiquette-shattering examples — and let’s not forget that of all the wild gags the “Hangover” movies had to offer, the series’ MVP was none other than Ken Jeong. All of which is to say, this moment is so far overdue, we can’t help but marvel that it took Hollywood this long to see what kind of mischief an all-Asian American crew might come up with.
“Joy Ride” wastes no time in setting the tone, opening with a flashback to that special moment 25 years earlier when adopted Audrey and new-to-town Lolo cemented their friendship: The two girls have just met at the aptly named White Hills Park when a bully hurls a racist insult across the playground. “Fuck you!” Lolo screams back, punching the kid so hard he’ll probably need stitches. At the movie’s SXSW premiere (where Lionsgate treated the already-rowdy crowd to free alcohol), the auditorium erupted into applause at that moment, which is undeniably empowering — and arguably even necessary, considering the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
For sitcom-honed co-writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, the trick is to keep surprising audiences with just how far they’re willing to push any given scenario. Meanwhile, for the central foursome — which also includes “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star Stephanie Hsu (as Audrey’s former college roommate Kat) and nonbinary stand-up Sabrina Wu (as Lolo’s friendless cousin Deadeye) — the idea is to take each situation and juice it up even further with ad libs and alt lines.
The movie may not be “Bridesmaids”-level brilliant, but it’s got more than a couple hall-of-fame-worthy comedy set-pieces, like the memorable-enough K-pop cover of Cardi B’s “WAP,” which one-ups itself with an unforgettable reveal. What “Joy Ride” doesn’t have is a particularly strong storyline on which to hang all its how-low-can-you-go shenanigans.
An overachieving associate in an otherwise all-white law firm, Audrey — who was raised by white parents, played by David Denman and Annie Mumolo, and knows hardly anything of her Asian heritage — accepts an assignment to fly to Beijing and seal the deal with an important Chinese client. She invites Lolo along to serve as translator, disregarding the fact that her friend (a “body positive artist” who finds a way to bring most conversations around to sex) has a tendency to say and do outrageously inappropriate things in public.
Joy Ride” recognizes that women — and especially women of color — have it tough in the workplace, where they aren’t treated as equals and are frequently objectified by their peers. But if the movie’s being political about anything, it’s showing that another underrepresented demographic can be just as extreme as your average Seth Rogen movie. With that goal in mind, “Joy Ride” features more irreverent vagina monologues than “Sausage Party” did dick jokes, which is a surely an accomplishment of some kind.
At the end of the day, what matters is how funny it is, and if you strip away the alcohol-primed SXSW audience’s laugh-at-everything response, a lot of “Joy Ride’s” humor hinges on characters shouting insults (“You look like Hello Kitty just got skull-fucked by Keropi!”) or unapologetic ethnic stereotypes (presumably excused by the source). Wu adds an element of physical comedy to the mix, functioning as the movie’s go-to scene-stealer, the way Melissa McCarthy did in “Bridesmaids,” or Awkwafina in “Crazy Rich Asians.”
The script does a decent job of spreading the laughs between the four core characters, while giving them all something to do in key scenes — whether it’s the cross-country train ride which turns into a desperate scramble to ingest or otherwise conceal a ton of drugs before the Chinese police find them, or an ambitious montage in which each of the women gets lucky with one or more members of the Chinese Basketball Association.
The latter proves inconvenient for Hsu’s character, Kat, a rising film and TV star engaged to be married to ultra-religious Chinese actor Clarence (Desmond Chiam). While Kat’s allowed her celebrity fiancé to believe that she’s a virgin, conversations between the four characters suggest she’s anything but. An explicit twist involving Kat’s character gets the film’s biggest laughs, humiliating everyone and turning the four friends against one another, though the otherwise satisfying script stumbles through the inevitable fall-out and make-up scenes. A year-later epilogue set on an altogether different continent doesn’t quite work and probably should’ve been saved for the sequel, which feels all but inevitable, since there can be little doubt that Lionsgate has a hit on its hands.