“Joy Ride” aims to be a crude road trip comedy; for a while, it succeeds at delivering the raunchy goods. Adele Lim casts her directorial debut with four very game actors who are down for whatever debauchery writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao plot for them. This includes a ménage à trois, a strategically placed tattoo of Satan, and a scene where they do more blow than Tony Montana and Cocaine Bear combined.
The catalyst for all this ribaldry is the story of hotshot lawyer Audrey (Ashley Park from Netflix’s “Beef”) deciding to locate her birth mother during a work trip to Beijing. She was adopted as an infant in China by her white parents (Annie Mumolo and David Denman). Joining her on this journey are her childhood friend Lolo (Sherry Cola), her college roommate, Kat (Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu from “Everything Everywhere All at Once”), and gamer Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), all of whom were originally there to party while Audrey worked.
To the credit of the filmmakers, they treat the birth mother plotline with the seriousness it requires. Unfortunately, Lim can’t blend the risqué and the heartfelt together seamlessly. One minute, we’re laughing about public reaction to a dirty viral video, and the next, a main character gets some life-changing news that would shake the average person to their core. The tonal shifts are jarring.
The film begins in 1998, with young Audrey (Lennon Yee) befriending young Lolo (Belle Zhang) on the playground. They are the only two Asian kids in the neighborhood. Their bond is forged when Lolo beats up a racist little boy. The resulting friendship helps them get through numerous other racial incidents and microaggressions.
Audrey grows up to be a high-profile attorney who navigates a work environment that’s as racially toxic as her old neighborhood. She also befriends Kat as an undergrad, forging as strong a bond with her as she has with Lolo. Kat becomes a star in China by acting in a popular costume drama called “The Emperor’s Daughter.” Lolo also goes into the arts — she sculpts and paints phallic artwork.
The road trip kicks off when Audrey is sent to Beijing to close a deal. Lolo joins her as her “translator,” though her Mandarin is somewhat questionable. Unbeknownst to Lolo, Audrey also plans to spend time with Kat in Beijing, which will incite a rivalry between Kat and Lolo. Unbeknownst to Audrey, Lolo has also invited their mutual acquaintance, Deadeye, whose video game connections in China can help them out in a pinch — provided those Internet friends really do exist.
The birth mother thread starts when Audrey’s client threatens to kill the deal because Audrey has no relatives in China and is adopted. Lolo blurts out that Audrey knows her mother, who is in Beijing. The client demands that she attend a party and bring her mother along.
Under the guise of the potential deal-closing (though we know Audrey secretly does want to discover her roots), Audrey agrees to a brief detour to her mother’s hometown of Haiqing. The two plotlines merge as this journey becomes the film’s true road trip. Just like every other road trip you’ve seen in the movies, it’s bound to go disastrously awry.
The actors are all uniformly good, though Wu and Hsu stand out as the film’s MVPs. Wu brings a sweet longing for friendship to Deadeye, and Hsu is a crowd-pleasing comic force to be reckoned with in every scene, especially when her character is battling Cola’s for bragging rights as Audrey’s best friend. Park brings a relatable hurt and confusion to her dramatic scenes. It’s also great to see a film about four Asian American friends.
When this movie goes for laughs, it’s often very funny. There are several sequences that go to unexpected extremes, including the aforementioned coke scene and another where the protagonists sexually decimate an entire basketball team. There’s a refreshing sex positivity (both queer and straight) throughout, even in the subplot where Kat has to hide her sexual past from her virginal fiancé.
Ultimately, “Joy Ride” is an uneasy melding of “Girls Trip” and “Return to Seoul”; it’s two pieces that work well by themselves but clash when forced to collaborate. A famous actor shows up in a surprise cameo that elevates the adoption drama while Wu concludes the comedic side with a movie-ending bang that’s audacious in its punch line. I wished I were watching either one of these films by themselves.
It’s a near miss for me, though to be honest, it’s hard to stay mad at a movie whose centerpiece is a K-Pop rendition of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s filthy rap hit “WAP,” complete with animation.
Directed by Adele Lim. Written by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao. Starring Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, Sabrina Wu, Annie Mumolo, David Denman, Lennon Yee, Belle Zhang. 95 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, and suburbs. Unrated (the devil is in the dirty details)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.