Sabrina Wu (left), Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu and Sherry Cola in “Joy Ride.”

Photo: Lionsgate/Ed Araquel/Lionsgate

Joy Ride” had the makings of a classic. It doesn’t get there, but without doubt it’s funny — the funniest comedy so far this year — and definitely the raunchiest.

The movie, which opened this year’s CAAMFest, is the story of four longtime friends embarking on an adventure in China. As such it’s something like “Girls Trip” (2017), a hilarious movie about four Black women going on a tear through New Orleans, or “Book Club: The Next Chapter” (2023) about older white ladies visiting Italy. What makes this different is that it’s a movie about Asian American friends, and by 2023 standards, that’s something of a breakthrough.

Sabrina Wu as Deadeye (left), Sherry Cola as Lolo, Stephanie Hsu as Kat and Ashley Park as Audrey in a scene from “Joy Ride,” directed by Adele Lim.

Photo: Ed Araquel/Associated Press

The characters are well-drawn, amusing in their own right and bound to clash in comically rich ways. Ashley Park (the Broadway star best known onscreen for “Emily in Paris”) is Audrey, who was adopted from China by white parents. She’s an up-and-coming lawyer and what makes her funny is her desperation to control her environment and present a professional front to the world.

Assigned to pull off a major deal in Beijing for her law firm, she brings along her longtime friend Lolo (Sherry Cola) to translate. Lolo is Audrey’s temperamental opposite — coarse, not successful and not diplomatic, but at home with herself in some essential way. Meanwhile, Lolo invites her cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), a skewed character given to bizarre outbursts.

Stephanie Hsu (left), Sabrina Wu, Ashley Park and Sherry Cola in “Joy Ride.”

Photo: Lionsgate/Ed Araquel/Lionsgate

The quartet is complete when they arrive and visit Audrey’s old college friend Kat (“Everything Everywhere All At Once” star Stephanie Hsu), an Asian American woman who has become a movie star in China. She has adopted queenly movie star airs and has assumed a virginal identity in opposition to everything her friends know to be true about her. Watching Hsu’s composure gradually dissolve is one of the comic pleasures of the movie.

In the first third of “Joy Ride,” director Adele Lim (co-screenwriter of “Crazy Rich Asians”) tap a rich source for comedy: Audrey frantically wants to make good, but everything goes embarrassingly and hilariously wrong when, in a nightclub, she meets the businessman with whom she is to negotiate. In a comedy, it really helps if someone is earnestly pursuing something and getting thwarted.

But soon after, “Joy Ride” stops asking us to care about Audrey’s professional problems. The movie shifts gears and starts concentrating more on her pursuit of her birth mother. From that point on, the comedy comes in set-pieces, interspersed by not-funny conversations about Audrey’s identity.

Stephanie Hsu (left), Sherry Cola, Ashley Park and Sabrina Wu in Adele Lim’s “Joy Ride.”

Photo: Ed Araquel/Lionsgate Films

The good news is that a lot of the set-pieces will make you laugh out loud. There’s a particularly good one on a train, involving an American drug dealer, and another scene featuring a jaw-dropping dance number. These moments are “Joy Ride” at its outrageous best. This is the zone it needed to hit, but it also needed to stay there a while.

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3 stars

“Joy Ride”: Comedy. Starring Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Sabrina Wu. Directed by Adele Lim. (R. 90 minutes.) In theaters Friday, July 7.

Once the story loses focus, the comedy can’t levitate in the way it should. After each great bit, the movie sinks back to earth. And not all the bits are great. In one sequence, some of the women have random hook-ups with traveling athletes and end up injuring the poor guys with the ferocity of their passion. That’s a promising idea, but one disconnected from the characters as we’ve come to understand them.

Still, I’ll take it. “Joy Ride” feels like it easily could have been better, but it’s certainly good enough, and it might be remembered as an early milestone in some significant careers.

First time director Lim should especially be encouraged. To go this raw this soon constitutes an announcement that she has no limits. Let’s hope she doesn’t discover any. 

Reach Mick LaSalle:

  • Mick LaSalle

    Mick LaSalle

    Mick LaSalle is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he has worked since 1985. He is the author of two books on pre-censorship Hollywood, “Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood” and “Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man.” Both were books of the month on Turner Classic Movies and “Complicated Women” formed the basis of a TCM documentary in 2003, narrated by Jane Fonda. He has written introductions for a number of books, including Peter Cowie’s “Joan Crawford: The Enduring Star” (2009). He was a panelist at the Berlin Film Festival and has served as a panelist for eight of the last ten years at the Venice Film Festival.  His latest book, a study of women in French cinema, is “The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses.”