An intelligently constructed and refreshingly equitable use of often easily botched romantic comedy standards, Crazy Rich Asians elevates what could have been a trite crowd pleaser into something vibrant and special. Made with an all Asian primary cast, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel comes steeped in tradition and opulence, offering a pointed look at how someone can feel like an outsider in their own race, a common theme in many films this year, but one often brought out in more serious minded fare. A lot of the beats and plot points contained within Crazy Rich Asians have been seen before in plenty of white bread rom-coms, but director Jon M. Chu employs them here in a bid to subvert (most of) them via a cultural perspective that often isn’t given big-budget Hollywood productions to tell their stories. It’s also a film that never could have been made in China thanks to its pronounced American roots. It’s a story that will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever felt inadequate around rich, important, or influential people, but it’s significance to an underserved Asian-American market shouldn’t be understated.
NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) has been dating her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), for over a year, and he’s finally ready to show her off to his family back in Singapore. Tagging along with Nick to the wedding of some close friends, Rachel is immediately struck by something she didn’t previously know about her beau: he comes from an incredibly wealthy family of property developers, making him both a public figurehead and one of the most lusted after bachelors in the region. Although she’s been raised with a certain degree of refinement and politeness, Rachel is still ill equipped when it comes to deal with Nick’s old school Chinese family, the centre of which is his beloved, stern mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Although she’s willing to humour her son’s new coupling at first, Eleanor makes it known to Rachel that her lower class American background negates her Chinese heritage, and that any potential furthering of their relationship will bring shame and dishonour upon the tight knit family. When Rachel isn’t busy navigating the mine field of affluent Chinese society, she’s forced into ignoring some hazing and teasing by other family members and women who think they’d be a better social match for Nick, leading the young woman to wonder if their relationship is worth all the hurt feelings, burned bridges, and awkward conversations.
Although the script from Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim deftly captures the cultural specificity and familial chaos of Kwan’s novel, the biggest key to Crazy Rich Asians’ success is Chu (Step Up 3D, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me 2). An underrated stylist who works frequently and tirelessly on often unnecessarily dismissed crowd pleasing blockbuster fodder, Chu has always had a keen eye for visual storytelling, and no film in his career has given him riper material to work with than Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a film about culture and wealth that needs to feel properly overwhelming and all encompassing to succeed. Packing his frames with shots of delectable food, first class airline suites, golden architectural features, knock-out fashions, mounting ludicrous bachelor parties on rented barges, and building to a wedding that attendees brag cost forty million dollars, Chu never shies away from depicting wealth as something surreal and seductive, but never to the point of parody. Every character takes wealth very seriously, even the clearly overwhelmed and dazzled Rachel, so while Chu walks a delicate line between opulent and outlandish, he always lands on the proper side of the stylistic equation.
Crazy Rich Asians is also romantic in an old school sort of way, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film where the main female protagonist will end up selling herself out in a bid to please the man of her dreams. It’s old school in a visual sense, with Chu making the most of his musical background by including plenty of recognizable nods to classic Hollywood spectacle and modern day pop art sensibilities. In some of its most energetic moments, Crazy Rich Asians swings either like a mid-twentieth century big band throwdown or like a post-modern musical (complete with a hit parade of pop standards translated into Chinese dialects). No one breaks into song here, and dancing is at a bare minimum, but the theatricality of Crazy Rich Asians is breathtakingly integrated into the film’s story. While that story might be akin to a far less psychotic and destructive riff on themes about class and gender that were found in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, it’s delivered with a refreshing amount of enthusiasm and creativity by Chu. He never talks down to the film’s sometimes predictable and overstuffed storyline, and he always finds ways to enhance and supplement what works best about the material.
Although it’s a convoluted, twisty, and admittedly frothy romance, Crazy Rich Asians still keeps its sense of cultural specificity front and centre, with Wu delivering a star making lead turn as Rachel. It’s hard to portray a character that’s both intelligent and perpetually confused, but that’s precisely what makes Wu’s performance so likable and relatable. Here’s a woman who’s constantly told that she’s too Asian looking to be identified as an American citizen, and when she makes her way to Singapore, she’s told by a Chinese family that she’s too westernized to integrate into their culture. Rachel never wavers in her belief that she’s good enough for Nick, but she’s constantly questioning if she’s good enough for Nick’s family and the lifestyle that he’s been tapped to inherit since birth.
While the character of Nick is a bit of a missed opportunity – coming across mostly as a blandly nice guy with the best of intentions at all times – it’s the interactions between Wu and Yeoh’s skeptical mother that provide most of the dramatic high points. Careful to never turn Eleanor into a moustache twirling or openly racist villain, Yeoh always imbues the delicately crafted character with grace and dignity, steeped in decades of familial tradition. Eleanor isn’t a terrible person, but she’s also rarely had her authority tested in such a manner by someone she sees as an outsider. She’s just as strong and independent as Rachel (although she’d never admit it, always deferring credit to the men in the family, as per her set of moral customs), but she’s also a protective mother and a true believer. The interplay between these Eastern and Western characters from different social strata provides the film with a much needed dramatic backbone and a way to underline the film’s belief that the story is about class first and racial identity second.
But this backbone doesn’t become apparent until around the halfway point of the film, which might leave some antsy viewers to wonder early on what point the story is trying to make about Rachel and Nick’s relationship. Chu takes his time acclimating viewers to the world of Crazy Rich Asians and the enormous extended family it has been built around, leading to an abundance of colourful supporting characters and side plots that are competing for screen time. Some of these work, and some of them fall flat.
Rising star Awkwafina is a delight as Rachel’s supportive best friend from university, delivering a spot on portrayal of a new money millennial. Gemma Chan has the best and longest subplot as Astrid, a kind-hearted relative of Nick’s struggling to deal with her ex-military husband’s betrayal. Nico Santos makes a huge impression as a flamboyantly gay relative and style guru who becomes one of Rachel’s biggest allies when it comes to navigating the ins and outs of the Young family. They’re delightful, but they’re sadly not the only characters competing for the spotlight.
There are other cousins, brothers, and friends who are elaborately introduced and then shunted to the side in favour of better material. There’s a grandmother character that serves the exact same function as Eleanor, and ends up coming off as redundant in the process. Rachel finds a chief rival in Amanda (Jing Lusi), the family’s lawyer and Nick’s ex-girlfriend, a catty woman who seems evil for the sake of being evil, and functioning as the only character who comes across as a tacked on villain. I understand that Crazy Rich Asians is part of a trilogy of books, and there are definite designs to turn this into the next big romantic franchise, but this remains packed with underdeveloped ideas that make the story drag unnecessarily.
The strengths of Crazy Rich Asians still vastly outweigh the weaknesses, and now that this film has set a lot of groundwork, hopefully these relationships will continue to blossom in future installments. And I assure you that there will be. It’s a well made studio film that maintains a distinct cultural identity while remaining accessible and entertaining to mass audiences. Does that make Crazy Rich Asians a “safe” film? Perhaps, but in the frequently white-washed world of romantic comedies, Crazy Rich Asians balances its crowd pleasing leanings with cinematic ingenuity and a strong belief in its own material. Late summer rom-coms don’t get much better than this.
Crazy Rich Asians opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, August 15, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians:
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