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Buckle up: This mile-a-minute 'Joy Ride' across China is a raunchy romp

Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), left, Audrey (Ashley Park), Lolo (Sherry Cola) and Kat (Stephanie Hsu) in <em>Joy Ride.</em>
Ed Araquel
Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), left, Audrey (Ashley Park), Lolo (Sherry Cola) and Kat (Stephanie Hsu) in Joy Ride.

There's an early moment in Joy Ride when you'll know if you're on board with this exuberantly raunchy comedy or not. On a neighborhood playground, a white kid tells a young Chinese American girl named Lolo that the place is off-limits to "ching chongs."

Lolo then does something that maybe a lot of us who've been on the receiving end of racist bullying have fantasized about doing: She drops an F-bomb and punches him in the face. It's an extreme response, but also a hilarious and, frankly, cathartic one — a blissfully efficient counter to every stereotype of the shy, docile Asian kid.

Lolo soon becomes best friends with Audrey, one of the only other Asian American girls in their Washington state suburb. That aside, the two could hardly be more different: Where Lolo is unapologetically crude and outspoken, Audrey is quiet and eager-to-please. And while Lolo speaks Mandarin fluently and grew up steeped in Chinese culture, Audrey is more westernized, having been adopted as a baby in China and raised by white parents.

Years later, they're still best friends and total opposites: Audrey, played by Ashley Park, is a lawyer on the fast track to making partner at her firm, while Lolo, played by Sherry Cola, is a broke artist who makes sexually explicit sculptures.

The story gets going when Audrey is sent on a business trip to Beijing to woo a potential client. Lolo comes along for fun, and to serve as Audrey's translator. Lolo also brings along her K-pop-obsessed cousin, nicknamed Deadeye, who's played by the non-binary actor Sabrina Wu.

The script, written by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, is heavy on contrivance: Thanks to Lolo's meddling, Audrey winds up putting her work on hold and trying to track down her birth mother. But the director Adele Lim keeps the twists and the laughs coming so swiftly that it's hard not to get swept up in the adventure.

The comedy kicks up a notch once Audrey looks up her old college pal Kat, who's now a successful actor on a Chinese soap opera. Kat is played by Stephanie Hsu, who, after her melancholy breakout performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once, gets to show off some dazzling comedic chops here.

Like Lolo, with whom she initially butts heads, Kat has had a lot of sex, something she's trying to hide from her strictly Christian fiancé. But no one in Joy Ride holds onto their secrets, or their inhibitions, for very long. As they make their way through the scenic countryside, Audrey, Lolo, Kat and Deadeye run afoul of a drug dealer, hook up with some hunky Chinese basketball players and disguise themselves as a fledgling K-pop group for reasons too outlandish to get into here.

In a way, Joy Ride — which countsSeth Rogen as one its producers — marks the latest step in a logical progression for the mainstream Hollywood comedy. If Bridesmaidsand Girls Trip set out to prove that women could be as gleefully gross as, say, the men inThe Hangover movies, this one is clearly bent on doing the same for Asian American women and non-binary characters.

Like many of those earlier models, Joy Ride boasts mile-a-minute pop-culture references, filthy one-liners and a few priceless sight gags, including some strategic full-frontal nudity. Naturally, it also forces Audrey and Lolo to confront their differences in ways that put their friendship to the test.

If it doesn't all work, the hit-to-miss ratio is still impressively high. Joy Ride may be reworking a formula, but it does so with disarming energy and verve, plus a level of savvy about Asian culture that we still rarely see in Hollywood movies. Director Lim can stage a gross-out moment or a frisky montage as well as anyone. But she also gives the comedy a subversive edge, whether she's pushing back on lazy assumptions about Asian masculinity or — in one queasily funny scene — making clear just how racist Asians can be toward other Asians.

The actors are terrific. Deadeye is named Deadeye for their seeming lack of expression, but Wu makes this character, in some ways, the emotional glue that holds the group together. You can hear Cola's past stand-up experience in just about every one of Lolo's foul-mouthed zingers. And Park gives the movie's trickiest performance as Audrey, an insecure overachiever who, as the movie progresses, learns a lot about herself. Maybe that's a cliché, too, but Joy Ride gives it just the punch it needs.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.