Good comedy transcends stale formulas. If it strikes us as truly funny, we don’t mind that it adheres to a staple we all know. On paper, “Joy Ride” is just another movie about a traveling group of misfits in the same mold as “The Hangover,” “Girls Trip” and others. It features a bunch of quirky personalities who clash as they experience misadventures in unfamiliar territory, and though things will eventually go too far and someone will get sick of the shenanigans, the bonds of friendship will ultimately win out in the end. However, “Joy Ride” overcomes its well-worn premise by injecting unexpected jokes, unique characters and hilarious moments into the framework. Yes, you know where the film is headed, but it’s the journey that makes it all worth it.
To close a big business deal, Audrey (Ashley Park) must travel to China to meet with the businessman in his home country. Audrey is an adopted Chinese woman who was raised by a white couple, but she has never visited her birth country before, nor has she sought out her biological parents. Joining Audrey on the trip is her best friend since childhood, Lolo (Sherry Cola), a sex-positive artist who agrees to serve as her translator. Lolo’s cousin, Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), also tags along, much to the chagrin of Audrey, who finds the awkward K-pop stan off-putting. In China, the gang meets up with Audrey’s college friend, Kat (Stephanie Hsu), a successful actress on a Chinese soap opera, and before long, the foursome is embroiled in an unexpected adventure across China to track down Audrey’s birth mother in order to save her deal (it doesn’t make much more sense in the context of the movie, either).
Possibly the biggest element of note about director Adele Lim’s feature debut, at least on the surface level, is that the cast is made up principally (and almost totally) of Asian and Asian-American actors. Representation matters, and having those cultural idiosyncrasies present on the big screen, shared with general audiences but skewed especially for the familiar, can go a long way for viewers who rarely see themselves up there. Hell, even just having four female leads is a fairly uncommon but welcomed sight in mainstream movies.
“Joy Ride” (written by Lim, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao) isn’t simply a nice thing for a community to have but a genuinely uproarious comedy that crosses all cultural lines for a hilarious time. The filmmakers wisely made it so that the four protagonists are not wildly different from each other and have some overlapping amidst their complementary personalities. This is a change from most of its genre predecessors, where each character represents a wildly different personality and thus different types of comedy. That’s not to say that they are carbon copies of each other, but it’s a more nuanced approach to characterization that helps yield better results via a fresh take on familiar group-dynamic tropes.
“Joy Ride” greatly benefits from the fact that all the actors excel in their roles. They are each tasked with being silly, grounded, sexy, innocent, independent and vulnerable at different times, and they manage to accomplish those changes in behavior with aplomb. While Wu is clearly meant as the “wild card” (think Zach Galifianakis in the “Hangover” films) that is noticeably askew and different from her peers, she’s still provided opportunities to showcase various emotions outside of just being the “wacky one” without it coming off as forced or out of place. Additionally, Park, Hsu and Cola all shine, showing complete devotion to some genuinely shocking and inventive bits that lead to unexpected yet hilarious jokes.
While the landscape of China is beautiful, “Joy Ride” suffers a similar fate to most other modern comedies where the visuals aren’t all that interesting. Except for a brilliant musical interlude, DP Paul Yee does a fairly rote and uninspired job. Arguably, that’s to avoid distraction from the comedy happening on screen, but this is still a visual medium, and it would be nice if there was more appealing imagery, interesting compositions and creative camera moves than what is present. It’s not enough to derail the movie — most probably won’t even notice — but it’s an unfortunate continuation of a lackluster trend.
Thankfully, “Joy Ride” soars on its excellent characters, unique comedy and inventive situations. Looking at the description above, it’s easy to view the plot as a simple connect-the-dots, and in many respects, that is absolutely what “Joy Ride” is at its core: a wacky road movie featuring four misfits who contrast and collaborate in different measures before the inevitable second-act falling out and third-act pivot. But a movie is more than just its structure. The execution is what matters, especially in comedies, and “Joy Ride” delivers with innovative jokes and brilliant dialogue that will have audiences laughing through their shock and delight. In theory, we have seen “Joy Ride” many times before, but in practice, the film rises above its genre trappings to become a fresh and rewarding experience.
Starring: Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, Sabrina Wu
Director: Adele Lim