When I first saw the title “Crazy Rich Asians” I couldn’t figure out if it was an ill-advised (and cringe-worthy) attempt at racial humor or an inside joke aimed at those within the culture. Turns out I was overthinking things and neither are entirely true. “Crazy Rich Asians” is based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name. Kwan told Daily Beast “I wanted to introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience.” Short, simple and sweet.
This surprise hit of the summer is directed by John Chu from a screenplay written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. At its core “Crazy Rich Asians” is a satirical basting of the culture of excess and decadence. Chu doesn’t hold back in highlighting the lavish lifestyles of his subjects. It is extravagance to the extreme. But at the same time the movie sports a ton of something I wasn’t expecting – heart.
Things start fast and a little shaky. Within just a couple of scenes we are introduced to an New York University economics professor named Rachel (Constance Wu) who is invited by her longtime boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to travel to Singapore to attend a wedding and meet his family. When they board the plane and are ushered to the swanky first class section, Rachel learns Nick’s big secret. He comes from a very wealthy family. And I mean they are loaded.
“Crazy Rich Asians” feels pretty familiar right out of the gate. As Rachel is introduced to Nick’s broad assortment of pampered family members and friends we see the movie bend towards some rather routine romantic comedy tropes and character types. A couple of supporting characters dance dangerously close to overkill in their roles as comic relief.
But there is a subtle shift after the opening act that moves the film into more dramatic territory while maintaining a measured sense of humor. This is where my perception of “Crazy Rich Asians” changed and it began to reel me in. While romance is at its heart, it also deals with class-based and cultural biases, traditionalism, etc. Much of this is channeled through Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). She could easily be portrayed as a paper-thin codger, but she has actual depth and her cold-hearted obstinance is rooted in personal experiences from her past.
Several other supporting characters bring different perspectives to the story. Gemma Chan plays Astrid, a close cousin of Nick’s, quiet and proper but with her own set of upper-class troubles. One the other end of the spectrum is Peik Lin (played by Awkwafina). She’s an old friend of Rachel’s who lives with her parents in Singapore. Her goofy and eccentric personality is almost too much but she is dialed back at just the right time.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a Cinderella story of sorts but with a cruel edge to it. Amid its unbridled opulence and glamorous eye-candy is a nasty center which gives the movie a bite. Rachel faces pretty harsh backlash from some of Nick’s more unaccepting kin. She’s targeted for her social status, meager upbringing, and nationality among other things. Chu deftly handles these various shades of bigotry, never allowing them to swallow up the fun and humor while giving them the sting they should have. It’s one of several things the film offers that you rarely see out of this genre.
“Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t reinvent the romantic comedy or stretch it in any new directions. The ‘fish out of water’, ‘meet the parents’, and ‘rags meets riches’ story elements have been done many times before. This film simply does them better. The fashion porn, food porn, jewelry porn, real estate porn, party porn, it’s all fun. The eye-popping Singapore skylines are beautifully shot. But what sets this movie apart is its heart and the undeniable human element it never loses sight of.
The all-Asian cast has been a huge point of praise and it’s definitely a stride forward for Hollywood. But what does it say about American moviegoers? There are many great movies with all-Asian casts. They simply require us to look beyond our self-made boundaries to discover them. So just maybe “Crazy Rich Asians” will not only inspire a change in Hollywood, but also with the way some audiences watch movies.
VERDICT – 4 STARS