Joy Ride Fills Bucket After Bucket of Hilarity and Honest Messiness

Photo by Ed Araquel for Lionsgate

Call this an odd read if you will from the school teacher writing this, but the colliding friendships and wild shenanigans of Joy Ride bring to mind the whole “bucket-filling” concept popularized in the book How Full is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath and Dr. Donald O. Clifton. If you are unfamiliar, the authors’ theory speaks on how each person has an invisible bucket that gets filled and emptied and by our own invisible dippers and the dippers of others. A full bucket feels wonderful while an empty one is terrible. Since the 2004 book, bosses and school administrators alike have been trying to label and address positive and negative actions for overall subordinate or student well-being. Joy Ride, the directorial debut of Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter Adele Lim, isn’t twisting arms on that level, but the amount of observable behaviors that would flood or drain a hardware store’s inventory of buckets would make Rath and Clifton’s heads explode.

Ever since meeting on a playground as kids, Audrey and Lolo have been inseparable best friends thanks to shared Asian heritage despite Audrey being adopted by an American family (Annie Mumolo of Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and TV veteran David Denman). Fast-forwarding to the present, the career-minded Audrey (Ashley Park of Emily in Paris) has succeeded to become an attorney on the verge of making partner at her firm. Meanwhile, the more rudderless Lolo (Good Trouble’s Sherry Cola) is a struggling artist of sex-positive imagery (a source of many recurring snickers) basically squatting in a tiny house in Audrey’s backyard.

Four ladies sit in a train cabin in Joy Ride.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Audrey’s been tasked by her boss (Veep’s Timothy Simons) to travel to China to close a deal with a foreign businessman (Ronny Chieng of The Daily Show) that would secure her promotion. Despite her ethnicity, the very Americanized Audrey doesn’t speak Mandarin, so she enlists Lolo to come with her and join Audrey’s famous college roommate-turned-actress Kat (Everything Everywhere All at Once Academy Award nominee Stephanie Hsu) to be her translators and guides. While Audrey means business, Lolo is heartset on making this an epic girls trip and has her introverted K-pop fan cousin Deadeye (newcomer Sabrina Wu) tag along. 

Soon after the character introductions in Joy Ride, keen viewers will pick up on which friends and their stances tally on either the positive side or negative side of the whole buckets-and-dippers scale. Paraphrasing the work of Rath and Clifton, the bucket dippers that shrink one’s well-being include saying unkind or disrespectful words, bullying, or refusing to help someone else. With every line or action that drops a jaw and raises an eyebrow in Joy Ride, the negatives stand out brightly. Watch which characters commits them, how they do it, and how they either wash over it or brush it off as more positive than it really is.

Four well-dressed ladies look over a nightclub scene.
Photo by Ed Araquel for Lionsgate

Thanks to some fish-out-of-water expat mishaps and the competing agendas of Lolo and the very dominant Kat vying for Audrey’s favoritism, schedules and itineraries go up in smoke quickly. Joy Ride hilariously tumbles and stumbles from one hilarious pratfall to another to become a zany road movie worthy of “instant classic” status in that comedy subgenre. The kicker is the vehicles, so to speak, for this movie are more about the moral engines inside than the physical wheels on the outside that fall off with each screw-up.

The flip side to that bad influence dynamic between the four actresses is the positive effort going on to fill buckets. Back to notes from the source book, the typical good pours include being kind and respectful to others, paying someone a compliment, helping those who are struggling, and showing someone you care for them. No matter how empty some buckets get over the wayward course of Joy Ride, the boisterous shouting or the private hugs of supportive dips always come back to lift the entire movie. 

A woman with her friends behind looks over at an attractive man.
Photo by Ed Araquel for Lionsgate

There was no holding these ladies down, and the physical comedy comes out of every pore of the movie. Joy Ride turned them loose to break any boundary they wanted for an R-rated escapade of laughs. Anyone who has watched Netflix’s Emily in Paris has known for three seasons that Ashley Park is a multi-talented star in the making. Please let this leading role in Joy Ride be a launching pad for her off-the-charts charisma. While granted plenty of chances to cavort a little, Ashley is still mostly the straight man to Sherry Cola’s mouthy megaphone of depravity. Cola is hooting-and-hollering revelation all her own, and the two personalities are paired perfectly.

Speaking of launching pads, Stephanie Hsu received one last year with Everything Everywhere All at Once that vaulted her–deservedly so–all the way to the Oscars. By playing the more buttoned-up member of the four with unbridled old habits waiting to burst out, Hsu executes and pulls off arguably the biggest laughs of the whole movie. Joy Ride is an expansion of her acting range from last year’s Oscar darling and counts as another bounce on that springboard to bigger and better things for her career.

Four ladies sit together and sip tea in Joy Ride.
Photo by Ed Araquel for Lionsgate

Bear with this whole bucket analogy for one more angle with Joy Ride. Anyone who has enjoyed the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge trend over the last decade can attest that buckets are messy, as documented by the many humorously captured fails. Full ones are heavy and precarious to tote around. Partially-filled buckets without lids slosh and spill all over the place. Don’t even start on what kinds of messy liquids and substances buckets can possibly hold. In any case, most people hopefully know the messiness possible going into the selection of a bucket as a vessel or tool.

Well, friendships are messy too. All of this scandalous jiggling of sex-starved bodies and tongue-wagging from big personalities leaves puddles everywhere in Joy Ride. After a while, we cheer the mess on, and the dirtier the better. Yet, because Joy Ride leans on the imperfections of friendship and acknowledges the intrinsic and honest messiness of its characters, it avoids being a mess as a film itself. That’s when the other side of the acting chops come out from Park, Cola, Hsu, and Sabrina Wu sneaking in as the oddball chrysalis with her own endearing and unique freak-flag butterfly inside.

Wonderfully conceived by Lim and former Family Guy writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, Joy Ride’s heartfelt backbone of friendship unites what could have been a very disorganized string of skits and gags with no emotional backing. We know the predictable arc of momentary friendship failure and necessary relationship-healing forgiveness is coming, and yet we find ourselves unashamedly rooting for that just as hard as the mess. It also lovingly means some of the messes caused by Joy Ride’s buckets are better cleaned up with tissues dotting your eyes more than full-on mops disinfecting entire theater aisles.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

Leave a Reply

Film Obsessive welcomes your comments. All submissions are moderated. Replies including personal attacks, spam, and other offensive remarks will not be published. Email addresses will not be visible on published comments.

Three figures engage in a passionate kiss.

Altered Innocence to Release Uranian Dreams by Eloy de la Iglesia

Greta Gerwig speaks, holding a microphone.

Greta Gerwig the Auteur: From Indies to Barbie