With writing credits like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), one shouldn’t be surprised that Adele Lim’s first foray into directing, Joy Ride, would be both distinctly through the lens of Asian culture and absolutely extraordinary. What is surprising is how it may be the best comedy released in 2023, balancing the heartfelt sincere with body comedy so that even the extreme lengths the narrative goes to elicit laughs never feel too far or implausible. Rather, for audiences who believe in the friendship and trials on display, whether of the culture or not, they will find something of themselves in this tale, shedding tears in between the laughs. Now, thanks to Lionsgate, home viewing audiences can enjoy Joy Ride at their leisure, exploring roughly 40 minutes of bonus materials to enlighten on how the film was conceived, developed, and produced.
If you’re looking to learn about Joy Ride in a spoiler-free capacity, head over to EoM Senior Critic Hunter Heilman’s initial theatrical review. Moving forward, we’ll not hesitate to explore all the ooey-gooey and heart-warming parts of this exuberant comedy.
Childhood best friends Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) couldn’t be more different; one’s a high-powered attorney on the rise and the other’s a starving artist. But they’ve always had each other’s back in their small town of White Hills, Seattle. When an opportunity arises for Audrey to close a deal and become partner, but it means traveling to China, Lolo comes along to serve as an interpreter and moral support. Things start to go a little sideways in the plan when Lolo surprises Audrey with the news of Lolo’s cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) joining them so that the two can go see their family and Audrey surprises Lolo with the news that they’re going to meet up with Audrey’s former college roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu). But where things go off the rails is when the potential client, Chao (Ronny Chieng), insists that Audrey bring her mother to an upcoming celebration as a symbol of their families coming together, a request that’s only life-shaking as Audrey was adopted by white Americans and has never met her birth mother. Thus, the journey to Audrey’s homeland to improve her career turns into an expedition to find herself with her three friends in tow.
On its surface, when looked through the general synopsis of “Four Asian-American friends travel through Asia in search of one of their birth mothers and along the way, their experience becomes one of bonding, friendship, belonging, and no-holds-barred debauchery” (thanks, Letterboxd!), this seems like a typical road trip comedy in the vein of EuroTrip (2004). Though Joy Ride does hit the hallmark script beats (two besties, one potential friendship rival, and the outcast bonded by blood), everything it does with these beats feels incredibly fresh and often is executed through surprising means. We know the moment that Audrey tells Kat not to tell Lolo that Audrey is planning to move from White Hills to Los Angeles that Kat’s going to tell her, but what we don’t expect is (a) the circumstances leading up to it or (b) that Lolo won’t take it out on Kat but reasonably directs her ire toward Audrey. We know that the business trip is going to be an excuse for Audrey to get pushed out of her comfort zone and that it’s going to involve learning about her past (something the character seems to actively avoid resulting in a deep-seeded need to belong while refusing to find out who she is), but the realization that she’s actually Korean and not Chinese is a proper shock.
To be clear, understanding the history of clashes between China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, many of which are mined for dramatic tension in many Korean films (2022’s Hansan: Rising Dragon recreates the 1592 Korea-vs-Japan Battle of Hansando; whereas the Don Lee-led Crime City series often pulls from China, Vietnam, and Japan for its villains, each one predicated on long-standing cultural turmoil), is why there’s a major sucker punch in learning that Audrey is actually Korean. This is a character who had the ability to look into her past as she always had a photo with the name of the adoption agency on it, but because she (a) never learned what she presumed was her native language (one of many choices she made to pull away from her culture) and (b) tried to assimilate as much as possible, she always presumed she was Chinese, fostered by her adoptive parents who likely presumed the same thing, itself comically uncomfortable as the well-intentioned white couple who looked no further than where the adoption took place. So not only does this new information mean that she’s actually part of a different community that she knows nothing about, further isolating her, but it may mean that she’s part of a community she was told her culture had a problem with. That’s emotional damage on top of emotional damage. This is partially why, even when the script goes back to the well-worn path, having Audrey look up her mother, find out she’s passed away, visit the grave, and “bump into” her step-father (played by the always great Daniel Dae Kim (Raya/Always Be My Maybe)), we forgive it because, by this point in the film, we ache for Audrey and are delighted that she’s stopped running from learning about where she comes from so she can better build a path to where she’s going. It doesn’t hurt that the script bakes in a reason that Kim’s Dae is at the gravesite: Lolo and Kat found him, indicating that the other three have made their own amends, and still love Audrey, even if she hurt them. The intelligence of the script and the way it allows the foursome to be people first and Asians second is largely what makes Joy Ride absent of cringe and be entirely remarkable, even when you know what beats it may hit.
What’s great about the bonus features accompanying the release is how informative there are via the varying perspectives. Four of the featurettes serve as the bulk of the materials, and we learn from Lim, the cast, producers Seth Rogan (TMNT: Mutant Mayhem) and Evan Goldberg (TMNT: Mutant Mayhem), and the crew about everything from the ways Lim’s experience informed prior projects and this one, how the casting choices were made, the approach of the film, and the various decisions that went into creating the raunchy-yet-sweet film that’ll have you laughing one minute and crying the next. If you enjoyed the “Brownie Tuesday” segment, there’s also a brief sign-a-long that includes text with a bouncing basketball to help maintain rhythm *and* a featurette focused solely on showing off the cast’s solo choreography work. In the digital version of the film, the solo choreo is one selection, whereas the physical version of the film has the solo choreo broken into single character sections. While there’s no gag reel (which I think would’ve been *amazing* considering how we learn about and get a glimpse of the actors workshopping lines in scenes), there is a single deleted scene and it’s one I actually wouldn’t have minded if it had stayed in the film. It’s a scene between Lolo and Kat during the portion of the film where the foursome are visiting Lolo and Deadeye’s family, which not only offers some hilarious interplay between the two characters but clarifies how Desmond Chiam’s Clarence ends up in the airport hangar when things go hilariously wrong. It was likely cut to maintain the rhythm of that section and to get to the “Brownie Tuesday” sequence, but I think it goes a long way in showing Lolo and Kat’s interpersonal development.
Coming to Joy Ride late, there’s a certain amount of reputation preceding that can elevate expectation past reasonableness. However, unlike fellow 2023 releases John Wick: Chapter 4 or Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, none of the surprises hit my timeline, only the reaction to the film as a whole. It’s as if, when people want to, they can share excitement for a project without ruining it for others who may not see it theatrically. Because of this, I went in expecting to enjoy myself, but I could never have prepared to be moved so much, as well. Powered by a smart script and perfect casting, Joy Ride is exactly that, a joy ride, from flirt to finish. Should this be the accidental start to a series (the foursome do go on their second annual trip to France at the end), I wouldn’t hesitate to sign-up to see what they experience next.
Joy Ride Special Features:
- A Grand Adventure: Making Joy Ride (14:43)
- Adele Lim, Director: A Siren Call to Hollywood (4:49)
- A Place of Joy: “R” Is for Representation (7:23)
- Never Too Much: A Comedic Lovefest (5:58)
- WAP Sing-along (1:37)
- Four (4) WAP Solo Cast Choreography (3:58)
- Deleted Scene (2:17)
- Theatrical Trailer
Available on VOD July 28th, 2023.
Available on digital September 5th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD September 12th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Lionsgate Joy Ride website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.