Rare is the film one can describe as effervescent, but “Crazy Rich Asians” is just that. It bubbles like champagne, gleams like gold, and keeps up an energy level seldom seen onscreen these days. As if those accomplishments aren’t enough, it’s also the rarest of rare films – a mainstream, big-budgeted film with 70 speaking parts, all filled by Asian talent. Finally, it does something that borders on the miraculous – it breathes life into the romantic comedy genre, one that many figured was all but left for dead after too many debacles courtesy of the likes of Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez.
There’s a Cinderella quality to the romance at the center of “Crazy Rich Asians”, what with its commoner heroine being wooed by a modern ‘royal’, but it’s a more feminist take on such material. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is her own woman, a New York University economics professor, one who doesn’t need a man to be fulfilled. She’s great at her job and beloved on campus. One of those enthralled with her is faculty colleague Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). He’s is about to return home to Singapore for a wedding, playing best man to his BFF Colin (Chris Pang). Nick decides to bring Rachel with him to introduce her to his expansive kin.
On the first-class flight across the pond, Rachel is shocked to discover that Nick comes from one of the wealthiest families in Asia. She’s flummoxed but understands why he kept her in the dark. Nick feared that if she knew about his portfolio, she might not be able to see past it. His mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) certainly cannot. When she meets Rachel, she finds much to admire, but the matriarch can’t help but dismiss the American girl as she doesn’t belong to Singapore’s upper crust.
“Crazy Rich Asians” shrewdly refrains from turning Eleanor into a wicked witch of the East. She’s the antagonist of the story, but remains a sympathetic villain due to her backstory of struggling for acceptance when she married into the Young family fortune. Yeoh adds additional complexity to the role by subtly mining sympathy even when her character is at her most obstinate. The legendary actress speaks her lines haltingly, often letting her eyes show inner conflict before her dictatorial pronouncements. The movie would’ve still worked had Yeoh played Eleanor meaner, but her graceful choices help lend the film a sophistication way beyond the usual rom-com.
The film is also wise to surround its love birds with a vivid supporting cast. The hilarious Awkwafina steals every scene she’s in as Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s rich college friend living in Singapore. Nico Santos is a droll stitch too as Oliver, Nicholas’ flamboyant, all-knowing cousin. Gemma Chan ensures that her fashionista Astrid isn’t a vapid model but a beautiful woman still capable of being devastated by her husband’s adultery. And while Sonoya Mizuno may have less screen time than those three, she still shines in every moment she has as giddy bride-to-be Araminta. It’s hard to believe Mizuno played Oscar Isaac’s sullen AI lover in EX MACHINA, but the ingenue has range. The rest of the large cast register too, especially veteran character actress Lisa Lu as Nick’s proud grandmother and Kheng Hua Tan as Rachel’s single mom.
The production design by Nelson Coates is stunning in one extravagant set-piece after another. Mary E. Vogt’s costumes speak volumes about the characters wearing them, as well as the world of one-percenters. (Rachel’s eggshell blue gown for the wedding scene is a particular knock-out.) Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul’s could almost be a pastry chef for how scrumptious he makes every scene look. His slow-motion take on the cascading waters rolling down the wedding aisle is perhaps the film’s most singularly sumptuous image. Such below-the-line stunners lift “Crazy Rich Asians” way beyond the usual look and feel of typical entries in the genre. Don’t be surprised if this film gives the likes of “First Man” and “Mary Queen of Scots” a genuine run for the money in the artistic Oscar categories come awards season.
Of course, such stunning window dressing wouldn’t matter at all if the audience wasn’t invested in Rachel and Nicholas as a couple. We are wholly, and it’s a credit to the actors, writers, and director for giving us such a memorable duo. Wu is an extraordinary talent, as anyone knows who’s seen her hilarious turn as the Tiger Mom to beat all tiger moms on the ABC comedy series “Fresh Off the Boat.” There’s none of that character’s delicious sting in Wu’s delivery here, yet she does infuse her ingenue with some similar sass. Rachel is sweet and considerate, but she’s no wallflower or doormat, that’s for sure. Her mahjongg scene at the end plays like a Masterclass in stare-down contests. Golding too plays an impossibly nice guy, and one who’s ridiculously handsome to boot, but he imbues his lead with a knowing slyness that ensures Nick comes off as a helluva catch beyond his surface appeal.
Director Jon M. Chu is used to managing spectacle (“Now You See Me 2”, “Step Up 2: The Streets”), and he knows how to expertly choreograph big casts around even bigger locations. Here, even with all the glitz and glamour surrounding everyone at all times, Chu never loses focus on the characters. His direction never rushes a scene or pushes an actor to speed through their delivery. Instead, he perfectly times their punchlines and milks the pathos without being maudlin. Who knew the director of the testosterone-laden “G.I. Joe: Resurrection” had such a delicate touch?
Screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim kept the best of Kevin Kwan’s bestseller, as well as softened the edges of some of that parts that might have come off as too cartoonish on the big screen. Their adaptation keeps the mean girls mean without turning them into over-the-top caricatures, and they keep the screen time of the chauvinist male characters to a merciful minimum. It is strange that Nick’s dad never shows up, considering how often he’s referenced in the screenplay, but perhaps they’re saving him for the inevitable sequel. Kwan did write two follow-up books, so with the success worldwide of this film already, you know they’re coming.
Kudos to Kwan and director Chu too for taking the Warner Bros. deal over the more immediately generous one offered up by Netflix. Going with the online platform’s deal might’ve made them rich beyond their wildest dreams, but they chose principal over pocketbook. There hadn’t been a major Hollywood film starring an Asian cast on the big screen since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” and they felt the need to correct that oversight. The floundering genre of rom-coms needed to be fixed too, and luckily for moviegoers, “Crazy Rich Asians” does a fantastic job of remedying both.
Catch the ‘Crazy Good’ trailer below: