Making her feature debut, Adele Lim takes bold risks in her raunchy road trip comedy “Joy Ride.” The movie walks a fine line between exploring heartfelt questions about belonging and outrageous jokes played for shock value. It’s as if Lim and fellow co-writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao saw the antics in Malcolm D. Lee’s “Girls Trip” as a challenge to top. It’s safe to say the crew in “Joy Ride” do top the outrageous factor, but whether or not it’s as effective will depend on the viewer’s stomach for bawdy humor.
Still, as uneven as the tone may wobble from Audrey’s search for her long lost mother, who gave her up for adoption, and the group hooking up with members of a traveling basketball team, there’s no shortage of jokes and other comical situations to keep the awkward laughs and full-body cringes rolling along. To enhance the movie’s whirlwind melee, Paul Yee’s cinematography transports audiences from the banality of Audrey and Lolo’s hometown to the luridly colorful animated sequences of the group’s K-Pop fantasy number and the many stops along the way, from misty country roads and expansive rivers to busy cafes and dimly lit clubs. The richness of each scene steadies the sense of whiplash from the story’s breakneck pace.
Beyond crude humor, “Joy Ride” also pokes fun at Audrey’s identity crisis, using it as a springboard for pointed self-criticism and sharp cultural commentary. One of the movie’s sharpest sequences occurs when Audrey is fooled by a white American, a drug dealer desperate to hide her goods. She initially trusts her fellow American at the expense of sitting with other Chinese passengers and puts the group in an even more precarious situation because, as Lolo puts it, Audrey is prejudiced against people who look like her. There are many little introspective moments throughout the movie, like when they land at the Shanghai airport; Audrey notes what a different feeling it is for her to no longer be in the minority. There are even more observational jokes about missing out on a country’s traditional cuisine or speaking the language when you grew up outside the culture. These one-liners and observations throughout “Joy Ride” give a more nuanced sense of humor to the quips about random sex acts and ill-advised tattoos.