Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘Joy Ride’ Finds Laughs in Sex, Drugs, and K-Pop

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Looking back, I find myself giggling and outright laughing at moments from Joy Ride. It may be a little clunky, but the film’s heart and comedic blitheness of the stars more than smooth out any of the rough patches. I laughed and laughed hard.

Adele Lim’s Joy Ride is a gleeful smorgasbord of women making poor decisions and never judging them for it. Admittedly flawed, Joy Ride is one of those comedies that, when it’s funny-it’s a screecher. Even with Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao’s plot feeling more like something written on the back of a napkin, Joy Ride is chock full of laughs. However, Chevapravatdumrong and Hsiao’s script is deceptive in that it feels light on plot, but that’s because, for them, it’s an excuse to put these characters together and see them bounce off each other.

joy ride
Left to right: Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), Audrey (Ashley Park), Lolo (Sheryy Cola), and Kat (Stephanie Hsu)

By themselves, each woman seems to have it together to an extent. Well, maybe, not Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), Lolo’s (Sherry Cola) K-Pop-obsessed cousin. Lolo is a struggling artist who pays rent to live in her best friend Audrey’s (Ashley Park) backyard. Audrey is a corporate lawyer-a rising star in her firm-and only Asian. Kat (Stephanie Hsu) is a famous actor in China, the star of her own soap-opera, “The Emperor’s Daughter,” and she’s engaged to her co-star, the Jeus-obsessed Clarence (Desmond Chiam). 

But once they get together, it becomes clear how much of a glorious trash fire each of them really is. It’s here that Chevapravatdumrong and Hsiao’s script reveals its cleverness. The plot is merely an excuse to explore the Asian diasporas while firing off broad and incisive jokes. Thankfully Lim’s direction doesn’t try and force the comedy, instead allowing the jokes to play or fall on their own accord without trying to force the humor. 

The problem arises when it tries to get serious. Joy Ride works on all cylinders when it’s busy being a no-holds-barred rollercoaster ride of ribald jokes and gags. Park’s bit where she was craving cocaine had me rolling. But it’s nothing compared to the scene where all four of them, through sexual misadventures, disable an entire roster of basketball players. The film’s razor-sharp commentary works best when it’s the foundation of the joke, such as when Audrey chooses the rail car with the white girl because she finds her the least threatening. 

Joy Ride cleverly mocks and highlights the racism within the Asian community, especially about other Asians. Audrey was adopted from China and raised by two upper-middle-class white people in Seattle and often feels as if she is neither Chinese enough nor American enough. Park accurately plays Audrey as someone with privilege and facing her own hurdles as someone without a heritage. 

Refreshingly, Joy Ride has a rampant sex-positive attitude about it. Whether it is Audrey’s threesome, Kat’s lengthy and active sex life she’s trying to hide from her fiance, Lolo’s foul-mouthed sexually open attitude and art, or even Deadeye’s asexuality, Joy Ride doesn’t judge or shame. Even Clarence’s desire to save himself for marriage isn’t mocked. The joke isn’t that he’s a virgin or that Kat isn’t; it’s that she has a tattoo of something on her vagina that she’s afraid might frighten him off. Spoiler warning: They do show the tattoo and the vagina.

Left to right: Kat (Hsu), Audrey (Park), Deadey (Wu) and Lolo (Cola)

Despite its sexual frankness Joy Ride bunts the ball when it comes to Wu’s Deadeye, the Harpo Marx of the group. Deadeye is a character that seems to exist in two worlds, ours and her own, with her jokes being more esoteric and absurd. But the issue with Deadeye isn’t with her comedy but her obviously coded Queerness, with her buzz cut hairstyle, gender-neutral clothing, and how she fawns over Audrey, even going so far as to tell someone, “She’s MY…friend.” 

Deadeye clearly challenges hetero and gender normativity, but the movie never broaches or wrestles with that-instead focusing on her shyness and awkward personality. The coded Queerness is often hinted at but never really mentioned. The result is that it often feels like they leave commentary and jokes on the table.

Still, Lim doesn’t shy away from mentioning that both Lolo and Kat are either bisexual or have at least experimented. It is never played for laughs, and both women, who start off openly hostile toward each other, bond over the movie and form an impeccable kinship because they share an intrinsic commonality of being a dumpster fire. 

Lim adeptly allows each character a moment and a gag to milk. There’s no sense of one-up-manship so much as a collaboration of building upon a joke until it reaches a fevered pitch. The laughs in Joy Ride feel explosive because of how the situations quickly spiral out of control, with the ladies often finding new and interesting ways to let chaos reign.

The drama aspects were hit-and-miss for me. While I was happy to see the friends make up after the mandatory scene in which everything goes “too wrong” and causes real friction between them, it felt perfunctory. On the other hand, Audrey’s discovery about her mother and meeting her mother’s husband, played by Daniel Dae Kim, had me tearing up. Still, as effective as I found Audrey’s storyline it feels tonally off from the rest of the movie-even if Lim manages to pull off the emotional beats.

Lim and her cameraperson Paul Yee shoot the comedy straight on, with moments of flourishes from a TikTok video or a live-action Manga. The rest of the movie is your typical visually flat vista of medium and wide shots to let the actors mug for the camera. It is a tried and true method for comedies; however, in the instances where Lim and Yee get playful, there’s a vitality to the visual language of the film that is sorely missing.

Raunchy all-women buddy movies, while not rare, are still not as prevalent as the ones featuring men. Granted, there may come a time when the genders and sexuality will be mixed but seems beyond Hollywood’s limited scope of imagination right now. Still, if they are half as good as Joy Ride, we’ll be in pretty good shape.

Images courtesy of Lionsgate

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