Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Based on the satirical 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, which itself became so popular that it resulted in (so far) two literary sequels, the less biting and more streamlined film version of Crazy Rich Asians brings back the semi-dormant romantic comedy to the big screen, front and center, bolstered by a unique flavor for a mainstream American movie, and a sumptuously captured, and evenhanded, look at the life of the ultra-rich, both gorgeous and garish.  The story of a young and insecure woman of lesser berth being taken in by love of a wealthy suitor and then being scorned by those in his so-called class is nothing new, from Hitchcock’s Rebecca to Garry Marshall’s Pretty WomanSome would even cite “Cinderella” and other fairy tales for the origin.  However, every generation needs its version, so why not Crazy Rich Asians for the year 2018?

Constance Wu (The Sound of My Voice, The Lego Ninjago Movie) stars as Rachel Chu, who essentially serves as our best surrogate for the story, the daughter of a single Chinese immigrant mother, who rose above her station to become a professor of Economics at NYU.  Her current boyfriend is a man named Nick Young (the screen debut of Henry Golding), who, for over a year since they’ve been dating, has never divulged to her that his family back home in Singapore is insanely wealthy.  The cat has to be let out of the bag, however, when Nick asks Rachel to attend the wedding of his best friend in Singapore, where he also plans to pop a question of his own after she meets the family.  However, Nick’s stern mother, Eleanor (Yeoh, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), disapproves of trying to pursue what one wants in life independent of the family wishes, so Rachel’s pursuit of her own career, and Nick pursuit of love beyond his class, ruffles more than a few feathers among his family, friends, and the rest of the rich and famous they socialize among.

Juxtaposing with the relationship at the core of the film are that of Nick’s family and friends, who all have their own stories and difficulties, showing that there really isn’t a tried-and-true way of finding love and happiness among either set of beliefs, Eastern or Western.  Even the disapproving family members reveal that life hasn’t always been easy for them, even though they have come to the world of the wealthy either with some effort, or are just born into it.  The wealthy have their own class systems within the class systems, people of Asian countries looking down upon those of other countries, and Chinese people looking down upon other regions, as people of old money look down upon the nouveau riche, and those with billions look down upon those with mere hundreds of millions.  It’s all a competition to be the one that no one can reproach for their wealth and status.  Backstabbing and exclusionary tactics are common, even among friends, and worse among families, all seemingly jealous of one another.  There are a high number of extraneous characters, but they all contribute in their own way to the disorientation and doubts that begin to weigh on Rachel’s mind as the stranger in a strange land of the crazy rich.

Many have written about the film’s importance in spotlighting Asian families outside of films actually from Asia, or Asian characters in mainstream films outside of the martial arts genre.  To dismiss the film of commentary on its cultural significance would probably be doing a disservice to it, as story has every bit to do with the distinct difficulties of growing up in an Asian family, particularly one that has firm beliefs in roots and tradition, as well as the responsibility of the family to shape the lives of their children, even into adulthood.  Additionally, it’s about the anxiety that occurs in many large Asian families that struggle with finding a way to not lose hold of centuries-old Eastern traditions when some grow up to embrace Western ways of thinking.  It’s also about the awkward feeling of being an outsider to a lifestyle and cultural caste system that one is forced to traverse for the sake of one’s emotional connection to that person on the other side of life’s tracks.

Beyond this, the splendor-soaked visuals of the film are particularly remarkable, from the verve that director John M. Chu shows with his movement and ability to keep the pace uptempo, even if the film touches the two-hour threshold, often considered a no-no for a rom-com.  It’s a treat for the eyes, with great cinematography from Vanja Cernjul, some terrific wardrobe, stunning locale work, ornate interior decorations, tightly edited montage sequences, and a very attractive cast of actors. Combined with an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western pop and jazz on the soundtrack, it’s an easy film to take in just from an aesthetic perspective, though the film does emerge to being more than that substantively.

As far as grading the film as a romantic comedy, even if its core story is familiar in its basics, one just has to ask two fundamental questions: is it funny, and it is romantic?  The answer for most audiences will be an easy ‘yes’ on both counts, and I can attest personally on laughing out loud on several occasions, and even tearing up a bit at least once – both increasingly rare for me to do as I have seen my share of formula films over the decades I’ve been reviewing films.  The formula works, though the contrivance of Nick keeping his status as a man of immense wealth seems far-fetched in this day and age of easy Google searches and social media connections.  Surely, within the course of a year, someone as smart and as capable as Rachel would have stumbled across that fact, or have it pointed out to her from among her many educated and in-touch friends.  In the book this makes more sense, as the old-money Young family is less well-known among the popular social circles as compared to the film, in which they are the talk of the town.

While many will also be dazzled by the two-hour displays of high opulence amid the lush locales in and around Singapore, it is for the solid characterizations, a capable director in John M. Chu (whose prior work as the helmer of a few Step Up films, GI Joe: Retaliationand Now You See Me 2 hasn’t been nearly as good as this film would suggest) and a talented crew, and very good performances by its ensemble of actors. and in particular Constance Wu, that puts Crazy Rich Asians a cut above most of the grand-scale romantic comedy efforts that have tried and failed in recent years.  You do end up genuinely caring for Rachel before the end, and if her happiness is not to get the ‘fairy-tale ending’, you would root for that as well, if that is what it takes.  It’s a soap opera at its core, but as recommendable an example of one as there has been on the silver screen in some time.

Qwipster’s rating: A-

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Running Time: 120 min.

Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim (based on the novel by Kevin Kwan)