We’re in the midst of an unexpected run of films about the experiences of Asian-born women confronting the lives they left behind as children, struggling to reconcile their identities as Westerners with the gravitational pull of the homes and people that they left behind. Both Celine Song’s Past Lives and Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul — each released in the U.S. earlier this year — are told from the perspective of women who emigrated from South Korea and both explore the question of where and to whom someone truly belongs. If one expands the parameters to simply “Asian women contemplating lives not lived,” then last year’s Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once also fits this trend. Bringing up the rear (in more ways than one) is Adele Lim’s directorial debut, Joy Ride, the sort of bawdy ensemble comedy where characters have to shove condoms filled with cocaine up their anuses and collectively incapacitate a professional basketball team through sexual hijinks… that’s also, in its own way, grappling with the exact same issues of national identity. At times, it’s an uncommonly thoughtful comedy, interrogating questions of authenticity, tribalism, and even what it means to view oneself as Asian. And at others, it just feels like the umpteenth variation on Superbad.
Friends since they first encountered one another at the playground as seemingly the only two young Asian girls in town, Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) are now in their late twenties and remain close despite their respective ambitions threatening to split them apart. Audrey, who was adopted from China as an infant by white parents (David Denman and Annie Mumolo), is a conscientious overachiever on the cusp of making partner at her law firm, who also, as Lolo is quick to point out, has at best a tenuous attachment to her Chinese heritage. Lolo, in the grand tradition of Jonah Hill or Seth Rogen — who, along with regular creative partner Evan Goldberg, is a producer on this film — is a foul-mouthed libertine living in an ADU behind Audrey’s house, aspiring to little more than making erotic corporate artwork and sliding into the DMs of NBA players. When Audrey is dispatched to Beijing for a week-long trip to try and close a business deal with a mercurial CEO (Ronny Chieng), she elects to bring along Lolo as her translator, the latter party viewing this all as an opportunity to get into some trouble in the homeland while also nudging Audrey into searching out her biological mother. Joined at the last minute by Lolo’s socially awkward cousin, Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) — who claims to be traveling to meet up with online K-pop friends — the trio flies off to China with very different objectives for the trip.
Upon landing, the triumvirate quickly becomes a foursome, connecting with Audrey’s college roommate, Kat (Everything Everywhere’s Stephanie Hsu). A reformed party girl now working as an actress on a Chinese soap opera, Kat’s pretending to be a virgin in order to placate her dreamy, devoutly Christian fiancé (Desmond Chiam). Butting heads with Lolo over who has the better claim to being Audrey’s best friend, while shutting down all discussion of her sexually adventurous past — this is likely the first film in history to feature Chekhov’s vaginal tattoo — Kat is installed as the group’s de facto tour guide, shuttling them across the city and getting them up to speed on the local customs. But after a disastrous initial attempt to close the big deal — as is the case in seemingly all of these kinds of films, heavy drinking and projectile vomit are involved — Audrey gets roped into a desperate scheme, orchestrated by Lolo and supported by Kat and Deadeye, to track down the birth mother she’s never met before and present her at a party hosted by Chieng’s CEO, in just three days, all to prove she’s “authentically Chinese” and trustworthy enough to sign a multi-million dollar deal. Or something like that.
It’s an ungainly, largely nonsensical plot engine; the sort of thing that would pass without scrutiny in a thousand bad sitcoms — in what’s surely a coincidence, the film’s two credited screenwriters, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, are veterans of Family Guy — but it forces the characters to venture far and wide across China and beyond in a race against the clock, while allowing the film to do its own take on Planes, Trains & Automobiles. It’s hard not to be cynical about something like Joy Ride, which feels cobbled together from the recycled parts of a dozen “edgy on the outside, squishy on the inside” recent studio comedies. Further, the central dynamic and emphasis on anatomical humor and getting fucked up in public dutifully situates the film on a recognizable cinematic continuum. From The Hangover to Bridesmaids to Girls Trip to this; it seems eventually every demographic will get their turn to behave badly on film. The setting and character backgrounds should afford numerous opportunities for specificity in the humor, but much of the film plays like checking obligatory, R-rated comedy boxes. Drug freakouts, “shocking” frontal nudity, running afoul of the cops, elaborately choreographed dance numbers — checks across the board. The four main characters easily slot into instantly recognizable archetypes with familiar interpersonal conflicts and tearful reconciliations you can practically set your watch to.
And yet, there’s undeniably something to Audrey’s reluctant discovery of her family history that partially redeems the film. There’s a development at around the one-hour mark that completely upends Aurdrey’s scheme to save her job, as well as her very sense of identity, puncturing the false notion of homogeneity in Asian culture, even amongst longtime friends. Audrey is frequently ostracized by her travel-mates for not speaking Chinese or, more pointedly, for being “too white”: Lolo calls Audrey a “banana” for being yellow on outside and white on the inside, and backs up her assertion by tricking Audrey into naming all the characters on Succession. Audrey herself even demonstrates prejudice: she’s vocally weirded out by the local cuisine, is perpetually fearful of pickpockets, and prefers to share a train compartment with a white American woman in spite of the fact that she’s behaving “sketchy as fuck.” Audrey is warmly embraced by Lolo’s extended Chinese family, even as a stranger in their home, yet the sororal spirit quickly dissipates once her lineage is discovered to be less cut and dry than initially believed. Especially once the film becomes more overtly sentimental in its third act, sacrificing laughs for emotional epiphanies (something of a regrettable tendency with this genre), you can sense an actual perspective struggling to escape from underneath a mountain of tired gags about testicular trauma or washing barf out of your hair with a hose. When the film actually drills down on the issues of race and nationality or navigating between conflicting worlds, it uncovers rich veins of comedic potential. Unfortunately, most of the time, it’s far too content to be a cosmetically varied take on a joke that’s been told too many times.