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‘Crazy Rich Asians’: Film Review

Constance Wu and newcomer Henry Golding play a young couple in love bedeviled by questions of class, money and family background in the screen adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s global best-seller.

Given that it’s been 25 long years since The Joy Luck Club, the first and only other major Hollywood studio film with a Westernized Asian ensemble and a contemporary setting, anyone who cares about cultural representation will be in the corner of Crazy Rich Asians even before the jazzy title sequence gets underway. So it’s both a relief and a pleasure to report that this high-gloss rom-com — based on the bestselling novel of a Singaporean author, directed by an Asian-American and featuring an all-Asian cast — is such a thoroughly captivating exploration of the rarefied question of whether true love can conquer head-spinning wealth.

Warner Bros. has high expectations for the Aug. 15 wide release, which should do gangbusters business in Asian markets. The real test will be its ability to transcend the core domestic audience of Asian-Americans and play more broadly at home. The signs in that regard appear auspicious.

Director Jon M. Chu, novelist Kevin Kwan, co-screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim and the appealing cast make the story culturally specific yet eminently relatable. It’s a rocky romance dripping in the kind of stonking extravagance most of us can only fantasize about, like a $40 million wedding, for instance. And yet it’s viewed from the anchoring perspective of a young woman who comes from nothing and remains true to herself throughout, played with grounded intelligence, backbone and emotional integrity by Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu in a lovely performance that gives the film real heart.

What will likely sweeten the deal for many voyeuristic audiences is the movie’s mouth-watering sampling of guilt-free luxury porn. It’s a sybaritic celebration of high-end travel, food, architecture, decor and fashion, but it somehow eschews the vulgarity of conspicuous consumerism. There’s flashy excess aplenty, but at the story’s core, Trumpian ostentation takes a backseat to proud tradition, family honor, friendship and, most of all, love.

The romantic stakes are misinterpreted as gold-digging aspiration only by judgmental snobs, whereas for the couple at the mercy of gossiping meddlers and suspicious relatives, dizzying wealth and all its attendant clubby insularity are an obstacle to be surmounted. The movie is less satirical in tone than Kwan’s novel; as a result it has the necessary depth of feeling to make us root for the beleaguered lovebirds to beat the odds and make a go of it.

Wu plays Rachel Chu, a self-possessed NYU economics professor raised by a working-class single mother (Tan Kheng Hua) who emigrated from China when Rachel was a baby. Her dreamboat boyfriend of two years, Nick Young (Henry Golding), invites her to be his date for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) in Singapore and then spend the summer traveling through Southeast Asia. That news pings through the international social-media grapevine of moneyed Asians at dizzying speed in an amusing montage that represents director Chu’s effervescent style at its best.

Nick has been reticent about his family’s astronomical, old-money wealth, evasively describing their situation as “comfortable.” Even when he and the wide-eyed Rachel are ushered into their first-class private suite on the flight from New York, Nick brushes it off as a perk of family business connections. But his desire to explore a relationship with Rachel on equal terms, unimpeded by his elevated social status, soon proves naive, especially once his hyper-vigilant mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) gets wind of it. Even before any actual talk of wedding bells is broached, multiple forces are conspiring to separate Singapore’s golden child from the perceived interloper.

The comedy is one part Meet the Parents, two parts Cinderella story, with those familiar elements reinvigorated by the fresh setting of upscale Singapore, with its architectural splendors embracing both colonial history and imposing modernist forms. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul shoots the locations in dynamic widescreen compositions full of bold colors that add to the sense of a 21st-century fairy tale. The writers also expand the geographical canvas by taking in Nick’s globe-trotting extended family, and dropping the principals into exotic locations for the pre-nuptial partying of Colin and his bride-to-be Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno).

While that couple’s fondness for Nick makes them instantly accepting of Rachel, that is generally not the case. But she has a few strategic allies on her side.

Chief among them is her hilariously unfiltered former New York college friend Peik Lin Goh, played by rapper Awkwafina, the scene-stealer of Ocean’s 8, who effortlessly repeats that feat with her irresistible insouciance here. Having returned home to her wacky nouveau riche parents, played to the hilt as shamelessly broad caricatures by Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun, Peik Lin sets Rachel straight on the true scope of Nick’s family fortune. She then teams with Oliver (Nico Santos), the flamboyantly gay “poor-relation rainbow sheep” of the Young family, to give Rachel the necessary makeover to pass muster with Eleanor. Even more important is Rachel’s first impression on Nick’s doting grandmother, or Ah Ma in local parlance, played with beatific serenity and just the right touch of inscrutability by veteran Lisa Lu.

Rachel also gets insider support from Nick’s favorite cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), the essence of poise, beauty and sophistication, whose own difficult experience of marrying beneath her income bracket makes her sympathetic to the outsider’s discomfort. While screenwriters Chiarelli and Lim generally have been successful at corralling Kwan’s vast panoply of characters into a manageable group, Astrid’s troubled marriage to Michael (Pierre Png) gets somewhat shortchanged as a subplot, even if it serves to show the fissures that wealth disparity can create in a relationship. Nevertheless, Chan is a radiant presence who lights up her every scene.

Chu’s pacing is uneven, and the film lags especially when Rachel and Nick are kept apart for extended periods. But Wu and Golding have charming chemistry that drives the plot and keeps you invested in their future together, even when it seems most hopeless.

It helps also that the luminous Yeoh brings such complexity to Eleanor, refusing to make her a one-dimensional dragon lady but rather a woman fiercely protective of her family and mindful of the kind of wife she thinks Nick will need in order to take his rightful place as head of their massive pan-Asian real estate empire. Her own uneasy entrée into the family as a young woman and her thorny past with the formidable Ah Ma also add texture to her interactions with Rachel, whom she dismisses as an American with insufficient understanding of Chinese family traditions. Those scenes are beautifully contrasted by affecting moments between Rachel and her mother, who appears when her daughter most needs her.

The filmmakers stir occasional bursts of raucous humor into the mix, primarily via Peik Lin’s family or Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang), an obnoxious overgrown frat boy who takes charge of Colin’s lavish bachelor weekend. But mostly, the comedy is breezy, smart and tethered to issues far more universal than the obscenely rich high-society milieu would suggest.

Aside from Peik Lin’s outrageously campy mother, there are surprisingly scant traces of pronounced Singlish in the dialogue, and few brown faces to represent Singapore’s large Indian and Malay communities. (Eagle-eyed viewers, however, will find subtle Singaporean references embedded throughout.) But the choice to go for a less localized, more borderless cosmopolitan feel seems right in terms of maximizing the film’s reach and eliminating the need for explanatory footnotes, like those dotted through the novel.

Chu has put together a slick, highly entertaining package. Unsurprisingly for a director who cut his teeth on films including the Step Up sequels and Justin Bieber concert docs, Crazy Rich Asians is energized by infectious use of Brian Tyler’s big, bouncy score and some terrific song choices, notably fun Cantopop versions of “Material Girl” and “Money (That’s What I Want).” What makes it so genuinely uplifting, however, is the establishment of the central relationship as a union between partners determined to remain on equal footing, far more concerned with each other’s mutual happiness than with all the wealth and luxury that stands between them.

Production companies: Color Force, Ivanhoe Pictures, Electric Somewhere
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Tan Kheng Hua, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie, Victoria Loke, Janice Koh, Amy J. Cheng, Koh Chieng Mun, Calvin Wong
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenwriters: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, John Penotti
Executive producers: Tim Coddington, Kevin Kwan, Robert Friedland, Sidney Kimmel
Director of photography: Vanja Cernjul
Production designer: Nelson Coates
Costume designer: Mary Vogt
Music: Brian Tyler
Editor: Myron Kerstein
Casting: Terri Taylor

Rated PG; 121 minutes

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