The latest big studio comedy, “Joy Ride,” is a unicorn. It’s a comedy in an era where the big studio comedy is essentially dead. And it’s an Asian-American film in the era of wokeness that is not woke. At least not racially woke. While far from perfect, it’s a sign that political correctness is becoming tiresome to those who are supposed to be peddling it.
“Joy Ride” is a comedy about two Asian-American women who grew up best friends in suburban Seattle. Audrey is adopted by a nice white couple. Lolo and her family have immigrated from China to Washington state. Audrey is driven by a deep sense of inadequacy, based in part on bullying in school. She becomes a classic overachiever. Lolo is the exact opposite. While the film begins in America most of the plot occurs in Asia, specifically China and Korea. Audrey is sent there on a business trip to try to land a big deal with some high rollers. When they get there they decide to find Audrey’s birth mom. Along the way they pick up two more Asian friends, Kat and Deadeye, forming a comedically formidable quartet.
This could have easily been a serious drama, more in the vein of 2019’s “The Farewell” starring Awkwafina. That was a beautiful film about the nature of family, life, and death from a distinctly Asian perspective. But instead, Audrey and company go on a riotously funny (and at times incredibly vulgar) screwball adventure.
Some of the more vulgar aspects involve a cocaine-fueled menage a trois, but the film isn’t 100 percent on board the sexual revolution. Lolo is obsessed with sex positivity, but most of her attempts to be sex-positive are, at best, clumsy. In fact, none of the women in this film are portrayed as very good role models, or particularly aspirational. Most of the jokes are at the expense of the four female leads.
That mockery is probably what makes films like this seem OK to the woke people who green light and produce them. Last month’s “No Hard Feelings” is another example of this. In the past, ridiculous comedies were dominated by men, but starting with “Bridesmaids” and “Pitch Perfect” in the early 2010s, there began a trend toward focusing on women in studio comedies. That sexual dynamic probably looks like deconstruction to the people behind these movies. But as I pointed out last month with “No Hard Feelings,” their sexual politics are not nearly as revolutionary as they appear.
What’s most interesting about Audrey’s journey is how complicated her sense of identity becomes. At one point she exclaims that she doesn’t really belong anywhere, and Lolo constantly reminds her that she’s basically white. Lolo is using the concept of white to mean something cultural rather than biological. Audrey is clearly ethnically Asian, but because she was raised by suburban white parents she is culturally white, not Chinese. The unacknowledged irony is that Lolo’s obsession with sex positivity makes her much more in line with the decadent values of white western elites, than her own much more sexually conservative Chinese background.
In this film, race is not treated as real. Culture and family, not biological race, are what define identity in this narrative. Wokists know they are supposed to give lip service to the idea that race is a social construct (because to them everything is a construct) while consistently treating it as the most real and eternally binding thing in existence. Clearly, this ideology is driven by what is most politically convenient, not logical consistency. They claim to be anti-colonists while treating with deep reverence one of the worst parts of colonialism: racial realism. “Joy Ride” eschews all this and brilliantly lampoons the concept of the woke white ally several times via the always hilarious Timothy Simons, who plays Audrey’s boss.
Audrey struggles to know who she is because she was adopted by white Americans, but it’s not treated as a racial tragedy. She’s not a victim, just complicated. Her sense of self is incomplete, but not entirely devastated.
As with the best comedies very little is held to be truly sacred within the movie, almost everything is mockable. This was a problem with “Crazy Rich Asians,” which was written by the director of “Joy Ride.” That film was essentially a hallmark movie that was treated as important simply because it came onto the scene while elite white America wanted to feel less racist. It’s an OK film, but it lacked spine, essentially catering to Western sensibilities of racial respectability rather than actually doing anything interesting, or honest, with Asian-American culture.
“Joy Ride” does not do this. It’s always clear that this film is an outrageous comedy dealing with the complexities of friendship and culture. It has a strong voice and vision, this film knows what it’s about. Without getting into spoilers, the third act takes a bit of a somber turn, which is often the case with comedies. The transition is seamless and leads to some very emotional moments as Audrey wrestles with her relationship to her birth mother.
This isn’t all that different in tone from the Judd Apatow comedies that were ubiquitous during the ’00s. The first two-thirds of those films contained lots of ridiculous, scatological comedy, while the final third usually brought the plot together into a more serious emotional climax. Seth Rogen was notably a producer on “Joy Ride.” Making a movie like this today, especially one about Asian women made by Asian women, signals something a bit more complicated than it did two decades ago.
The ’00s version of this story is a white male who is in arrested development and behaving badly. “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Black Panther” were a return to the racial politics of respectability, but in order to do that they had to portray racial minorities in a romanticized light. “Joy Ride” is just about four nutty women on an adventure together. This signals that there are parts of the filmmaking establishment that are tired of trying to do what they’re told when it comes to racial issues. They want a more humorous and honest conversation that portrays racial minorities as humans and not just minorities.
Audrey even voices that directly at one point in the film. She says being in China, surrounded by people who look just like her allows her to stop being Asian and just be a person. In predominately white Seattle she stuck out as an Asian, but here she can just be normal. This idea subtly betrays the whole ideology of multiculturalism as an aspiration. It’s OK for us to be different, and it’s not a sin to want to be with other people who look like you. Forcing that on society, via the authority of the state, with segregationist legal programs like Jim Crow or apartheid are a far cry from simply recognizing that ethnic differences exist.
In the end, this movie is clearly not putting forward a racial ideology — it’s just being honest about the ways that cultural and ethnic differences affect our lives, without trying to fix anything. The real problem with wokeness is its search for a solution over and against simply describing ethnic differences. This film does a good job of deconstructing that problem, whether it realizes it or not.