By JOCELYN NOVECK
Published [hour]:[minute] [AMPM] [timezone], [monthFull] [day], [year]
If you’re like me, there comes a moment of truth in raunchy film comedies when you decide whether to fully join in the fun — or ride it out on the fence.
It often comes in a key early comic scene. Can they pull it off? If so you’ll be putty in their hands for two hours, ready to chuckle along no matter how gross it gets (think of that bridal dress fitting in “Bridesmaids.”) If not, you’ll shuffle uncomfortably on the sidelines, feeling rather like a prude.
In first-time director Adele Lim’s ebullient, chaotic, nothing’s-too-gross-if-it’s funny road comedy “Joy Ride,” that moment came for me when watching Ashley Park swallow a disgusting concoction in a drinking contest, pretending all’s fine as her insides erupt. Expert comic chops cannot be faked. Park had me from that guzzle (and cemented it later with her Gollum impression.)
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Yet the impressive thing about “Joy Ride,” a comedy that more than earns its R rating — folks, it features a vaginal tattoo in full-frontal glory — is that there are similar moments for each of the superb quartet of actors that make this film buzz along.
Park, playing an ambitious and uptight lawyer, has the trickiest job, being funny while remaining the narrative center, and tasked with making us not only laugh but cry. But each of her co-stars — comic Sherry Cola as a cheerfully profane, struggling artist, Sabrina Wu as her awkward, K-pop obsessed cousin, and a fabulous Stephanie Hsu as a soap opera diva — pulls their weight in comedy gold. A viewer’s gross-out tolerance may vary; what unites is the laughter. Funny how simple it is when that works.
We first meet Audrey as a child in suburban Washington state, the adopted daughter of white parents who delightedly welcome Lolo, from a Chinese family, as a playmate for their daughter. When the bolder Lolo makes mincemeat of a white racist bully in the park, the girls launch a lifelong friendship.
Back to the present. Audrey, a lawyer so competitive she demolishes her boss at squash (he keeps claiming he’s “an ally” while tossing off racially insensitive asides), is living in the same hometown — not for nothing is it called White Hills — and Lolo is nearby. Audrey’s boss promises a big promotion and a move to Los Angeles if she can seal an important deal in Beijing.
Problem is, Audrey doesn’t speak Mandarin, so she enlists Lolo as a translator. As far as Lolo’s concerned, Audrey’s problems run deeper than her lack of language; she lacks any connection to her Asian roots. What a perfect time, Lolo thinks, for Audrey to make inroads. Maybe she can even find her birth mother.
In Beijing, Audrey survives a brutal night of competitive drinking with her potential client, who likes her until he finds out she has little connection to China. Suddenly, in an effort to save the big deal, Audrey and company are off on a road trip to find Audrey’s birth mother. This includes Deadeye, Lolo’s cousin, and Kat, Audrey’s former college roommate, now a very sexually frustrated soap star. Hsu, after her breakout performance in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” shows huge comic potential here.
The plot — outlandish and sometimes contrived as it is — offers plenty of room for comic possibility. And more. Screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao explore themes of identity, assimilation and anti-Asian racism both overt and casual — and within the Asian community itself.
When, for example, the foursome hops on a train, they search for a compartment with people who seem “safe.” Audrey rejects a number of Chinese travelers but settles happily in with a blonde American woman — who turns out to be a drug dealer. The scene involves hiding copious amounts of cocaine in ungodly places, but also reflects on Audrey’s subconscious racism.
Kicked off the train in the middle of the countryside but rescued by a basketball team (yeah, just go with it), the foursome has a ridiculously raunchy night (sorry for overusing the word, but “raunch” says it so well) before getting marooned again. The comic energy reaches its apotheosis in a K-pop number whose lyrics we cannot repeat here. The group has been forced to disguise itself as a band so they can get to Korea without passports. (Why? Too complicated). Their song is so overtly sexual you might find yourself blushing — except, as usual, the laughter is what wins out.
Even when the above-mentioned X-rated tattoo is staring you in the face. Which it is.
And then we pivot, dramatically, when Audrey’s trip to see her birth mom has an unexpected result. And suddenly, the laughter turns to tears. I know those were sniffles I heard at my screening, and not just mine. How did THAT happen, we wonder.
Well, it’s easy: Park earned it. They all did.
“Joy Ride,” a Lionsgate release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for strong and crude sexual content, language throughout, drug content and brief graphic nudity.” Running time: 95 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.