In 'Joy Ride,' a Trio of Asian American Women Brings a Fresh Perspective to Raunchy Comedy, with Mixed Results

Joy Ride is proof enough that the R-rated Hollywood comedy is alive, even if not always well.

Jul 7, 2023 at 9:37 am
click to enlarge Sabrina Wu, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Ashley Park fill roles you may remember from Sex and the City or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. - Photo: Ed Araquel
Photo: Ed Araquel
Sabrina Wu, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Ashley Park fill roles you may remember from Sex and the City or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Concerned moviegoers have been mourning the death of the R-rated studio comedy for far too long now. This lingering concern for the current state of raunchy Hollywood productions was no doubt borne from the phasing out of the Frat Pack: Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Owen and Luke Wilson, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and all the other guys who used to crack you up but now front Marvel projects or dramas for streaming services. The thing is, the R-rated studio comedy never really went anywhere. Sure, your Judd Apatows, Todd Phillipses, and Adam McKays aren’t nearly as prominent (or as prolific) as they once were, but the subgenre didn’t die. It simply changed hands. Producing team Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (in essence, protégés of the Frat Pack) and their latest co-production, Joy Ride, are proof enough that the R-rated Hollywood comedy is alive, even if not always well.

Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) have been best friends ever since they first met on the playground as kids. Audrey’s Caucasian adoptive parents walked up to Lolo’s Chinese parents and introduced the girls, and the rest was history. Growing up as the only two Asians in a primarily white suburb, Audrey and Lolo’s friendship was practically predestined. Strong together all through their K-12 years, they now find themselves in their late 20s on wildly separate paths. Audrey’s a lawyer on partnership track, while Lolo is a starving artist living in Audrey’s garage making works not-so-subtly depicting genitalia. When an opportunity presents itself for Audrey to travel to China to seal a deal for her firm, she extends an invitation to Lolo. However, both are hiding a secret: Lolo’s cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) and Audrey’s college roommate-turned-famous actress Kat (Stephanie Hsu) will also be tagging along.

The film arrives hot on the heels of No Hard Feelings, another dirty farce seemingly transported straight from the 2000s. But instead of following the sex comedy formula like the aforementioned Jennifer Lawrence comeback vehicle, Joy Ride sticks to a different tried-and-true recipe: the trusty girls-trip-gone-wrong. Scribes Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, a frequent Seth MacFarlane collaborator, and Teresa Hsiao, co-creator of the oddly titled (and ongoing) Comedy Central show Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, throw every to-be-expected trope and story beat into the pot. There’s the spontaneous drug trip, the lost luggage meltdown, the run-in with the cops, the gross-out over local cuisine, and all those obligatory miscommunications that push long-gestating tensions to the surface. If you’ve seen any previous road trip comedy, you’re likely to recognize quite a few of these setups throughout.

Joy Ride recycles more than just bits. Every one of its character arcs should feel familiar, too. Audrey’s searching for the meaning of family. Lolo’s trying to balance her lofty dreams with the harsh reality of getting older. Deadeye’s a socially awkward introvert looking for true friendship. Kat’s struggling to have it all while remaining authentic to herself. I could be describing the basic personalities of the characters from Girls Trip, Sex and the City, a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants film, or even Book Club: The Next Chapter. Looking past the unquestionably groundbreaking nature of a predominantly Asian cast and crew by Hollywood’s standards, Joy Ride is disappointingly risk-averse. For a movie rooted so strongly in identity, this is undoubtedly a serious problem.

Conventional plot and stock characters aside, does Joy Ride at least deliver laughs? Sure. For the most part. Even when a joke didn’t land for me personally, I understood why someone somewhere in the auditorium was laughing hysterically at the punchline. Chevapravatdumrong spent more than 15 years in the writer’s room on Family Guy. Hsiao devoted nearly a decade to an array of MacFarlane joints as well. As these resumes suggest, Joy Ride’s sense of humor is the same brand of broadly accessible raunchiness that has kept MacFarlane’s animated sitcoms on the air for much of the 21st century. I might not have been laughing for 90 minutes straight, but I could recognize the cadence of a joke more often than not — an exceedingly rare thing in a time when topical references are passed off as finely crafted gags.

Though it might not sound like the kind of project Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim would choose for her directorial debut, Joy Ride nevertheless fits squarely in line with her film career thus far. After lending her talents to the box office-breaking book adaptation, as well as Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, Lim’s decidedly less family-friendly endeavor is still concerned with many of the same themes at the center of her previous credits. The nuances of Asian identity, embracing cultural heritage, navigating the complex web of class and race … all permeate Lim’s work, but are especially prevalent in Joy Ride. Beyond its outrageous jokes or its female-focused talent in front and behind the camera, this unabashed embrace of Asian customs and culture is what’s most surprising — and welcome — to see from a mid-budget American production.

So: Is the R-rated studio comedy dead? If yes, what comes next? If not, who are we supposed to believe is picking up the torch? Instead of hand-wringing over such questions, I’m choosing to look at Joy Ride as one of many potential paths forward. As streaming services continue to falter and tentpoles struggle to stand against the weight of toxic fandoms and the impossible standards of nostalgia, could we see a return to the halcyon days of unabashedly silly, emphatically middling theatrical outputs such as Joy Ride? It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

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