Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Forget the visual largesse, there’s a strong tale of family conflict buried under all the bling that, coupled with a large, appealing all-Asian cast, just might be the no-martial-arts crossover film this cinematically neglected populace has needed forever
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Directed by Jon M. Chu and based on Kevin Kwan‘s popular pop-fiction novel, Crazy Rich Asians captures the new big-money Asian zeitgeist in all its garishly florid, excessive and mind-numbing glory. It’s all about the accoutrements here—the humongous McMansions, flashy rides, designer drag, and bling that runs to a cool million for a pair of earrings.

The plot is Simple Simon, and none too original, focusing on Rachel (Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor who unknowingly falls into a Cinderella situation when she suddenly discovers that her Singaporean boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), comes from one of the richest families in his—indeed, anyone’s—country. He takes her home to attend a wedding and introduce her to his family, which is enough to start a crapstorm of gossip that makes it into the media via certain Twitter dish addicts dogging their trail.

If Rachel was kept in ignorance regarding Nick’s status, however, there is no doubt as to how his family feels about her. His uber-controlling mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) simply doesn’t think Rachel is good enough for her cherished son, the only one anywhere near fit to take over the family business. Her constant testing of the poor girl, as well as the bitchiness of many of the women in the highest strata of Singaporean society, persuades her to give up her guy and hightail it back to the relative normalcy of NYC and her sweet, supportive immigrant mom, who herself harbors a big secret.

Chu, whose credits include two films with Justin Bieber as their subject, two of the Step Up franchise and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, piles on the lavish party visuals in a way not seen since Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Would that the design elements were as natty as that flick’s, for this particular crowd invariably substitutes flash for elegance. Every scene seems to be punctuated with a massive fireworks display, and that is just the beginning. Gargantuan nightclubs, bachelor parties aboard huge ships with rich a-hole arrivals via private plane, and mountains of mouthwatering food and drink (the film is definitely in the tummy-growling tradition of Babette’s Feast and Eat Drink Man Woman) culminate in a wedding to end all weddings, which takes place in an indoor manmade river at floodtide. The use of sprightly Chinese pop songs, which often make more satiric points than the weakish, often random script, is actually the cleverest, most on-target aspect of this production.

Chu is definitely not an actor’s director, being far more concerned with splashy spectacle than intimate human emotions, and often you can feel scenes go slightly dead, with his performers likely called upon to improv their lines and motivation as best they can. Luckily, quite a number of his huge all-Asian cast—a boon to a minority that has been historically ignored in American film (it’s been 25 years since The Joy Luck Club)—rise to the occasion and deliver both laughs and occasional, much-needed poignancy. Yeoh is the cast standout here, imbuing the ramrod-stiff Eleanor with a scary, almost Mrs. Danvers-like quality, the ultimate, implacable dragon lady obsessed with position, power and family status. She’s impressive (as she was in Memoirs of a Geisha) and, to her credit, does not for a second try to soften this Chanel-clad witch who holds all of the family jewels (incuding certain private parts of Nick) in her unshakeable claw. While she takes top dramatic honors, the irrepressible Queens-bred Korean-Chinese rapper Awkwafina is the breakout new star as Rachel’s rambunctious BFF. She’s every bit as lovable and almost as outrageous as Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip, had she only been given stronger material. (But her line “Yeah, I’m fuckin’ hungry” brings down the house.)

Wu (of TV’s “Fresh Off the Boat”) is lovely, has an appealing down-to-earth quality and—in tandem with Yeoh—manages to draw you into this culture-clash dilemma, a really universal thing after all, which should provide more true audience appeal than all the obvious opulence. She even manages to affect some sort of chemistry with Golding, who, although dazzlingly handsome, doesn’t bring much to this party. (There was some controversy over the casting of this Eurasian first-time actor as the hero among Asian communities still smarting from decades of “yellowface” white actors grabbing roles, not to mention the wrongness of casting mostly Chinese actresses as Japanese in Memoirs of a Geisha.)

As if to take the romantic pressure off the two leads, who are not exactly Hepburn and Grant or even Rock and Doris, there’s an expendable subplot involving Nick’s cousin, the impossibly chic and mournful-despite-her-bling Astrid (Gemma Chan)—that name says a lot about the improbable Westernized pretensions of these folk, however much they insist on their traditonal ways—and an errant husband who can’t quite get over his more common roots in the midst of so much muchness.