Film Review: Falling for Grace

Romantic comedy of a first-generation Chinese woman, played by the writer-director, and her old-money WASP beau is no <i>My Big Fat Greek Wedding</i>.

The story behind the making of this indie by an actress turned screenwriter-director is actually more interesting that the pedestrian but extremely heartfelt film itself. Working in theatre and playing recurring roles as maids and nurses on soap operas, Fay Ann Lee realized the dearth of roles for Asian-American performers, Determined to create her own opportunities, she wrote a romantic-comedy script, shot a trailer to show investors and spent four years raising the $3 million budget to shoot the film, which by this point she was herself directing. Completed in 2006, her movie, then titled East Broadway, played at the Tribeca Film Festival, but found no distributor.

Undaunted, Lee four-walled the film herself at Sundance/Kabuki Theatre in San Francisco, and began "bicycling" the film from city to city, like in the good ol' days. Soon, the retitled Falling for Grace—Grace being a first-generation Chinese investment banker who falls for a rich, WASPy prosecutor—and its in-attendance filmmaker were charming the pants off the likes of Des Moines, Iowa; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Grass Valley, Calif.; and even larger places like Washington, D.C., and Vancouver, Canada. On March 19, 2010, it opened at the single-screen Big Cinemas theatre, formerly the Imaginasian, in Manhattan.

Clearly, the film has struck a chord with Middle America, and this despite long, subtitled stretches in Cantonese as Grace Tang (Lee) visits with her working-class parents (Clem Cheung, Elizabeth Sung) in New York City's Chinatown. Defying the odds—distributors, who clearly never heard of The Joy Luck Club or Lucy Liu, told her an Asian-American starrer, particularly a romantic comedy, wouldn't play with mainstream audiences—Lee has admirably helped expand the tastes of provincial America, and more power to her.

But her film is not, shall we say, for all tastes. Opening with a trite voiceover by an adult Grace looking back on her teased and nerdy childhood—America, we're told, is "a huge, giant melting-pot where anything can happen!"—the film clunks along in some fantasyland New York, where a cab driver (Ato Essandoh) studying for his Ph.D. picks her up for work every morning and helps tutor her in opera so she can make a good impression at a society event. We're surprised his name's not Maxie and he doesn't wear a cabbie hat.

At the event, Grace is mistaken for a different Grace Tang, and despite herself gets swept along in the mistaken-identity fairy tale. She meets the rich, handsome Andrew Barrington, Jr. (Gale Harold, a poor man's Brendan Fraser), a principled young prosecutor. Or maybe not all that principled—though he seeks to close down sweatshops, he begins dating Grace, buying her expensive jewelry, while he's still dating his longtime girlfriend Kay (Stephanie March, who creates a real person in the role). There's something a bit distasteful about his cheating on the very nice, sweet and lovely Kay, which a more skillful director might have managed to gloss over. Lee's direction, however, is stilted, and her comedy beats too often feel off-tempo and clunky.

As a producer, though, Lee is nothing short of amazing. The film doesn't glisten, but it was shot with a picturesque eye that makes it look like a much higher-budgeted movie. And she attracted terrific, name talent in supporting roles: Roger Rees as Andrew's dad, Ken Leung (“Lost”) as Grace's brother, B.D. Wong as an office mate. Christine Baranski, as Andrew's mom, blows the other actor off the screen in one of her scenes. Margaret Cho and Lewis Black are around to do their things, and "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh and celebrity chef Bobby Flay have cameos. Now if only it didn't have dialogue like "The almighty dollar dictates the truth."