By Liam Lacey
The first all-Asian cast in an American big-studio film in years, Crazy Rich Asians — based on the novels of Kevin Kwan — is a glitzy feather-weight rom-com about a humbly born Asian-American girl, Rachel (Constance Wu), and her handsome Singapore-born fiancé, Nick Young (Henry Golding).
Some of it is, frankly, hard to buy. Rachel is an economics professor at New York University, yet in a year of dating Nick, she has somehow failed to guess he’s the scion of an international real estate dynasty. When Nick takes Rachel home to Singapore to meet his relatives and as a date at his best friend’s wedding, she is instantly immersed in a world of rampant materialism.
Director Jon M. Chu fills the screen with ostentatious images: palatial homes, luxury cars, couture clothes, and fireworks. It makes Sex and the City look like studies of convent life. Cue the Cantopop versions of Barrett Strong’s Money and Madonna’s Material Girl.
As Rachel quickly learns, she isn’t supposed to get comfortable here. She’s whisked to an island bachelorette, condescended to, and threatened by women who are angry that this interloper might steal their trophy boy. She also has to come to terms with Nick’s disapproving mother, Eleanor, played with frosty dignity by the great Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Why Eleanor — herself from a lowly background — finds Rachel so objectionable, leaks out in a series of encounters. The core of it is that her American individualism, the follow-your-dreams career woman selfishness (Rachel has a “passion” for economics) conflicts with the Chinese tradition of filial piety and self-sacrifice, though surely a daughter-in-law with a PhD in money could be a bit of a family asset. Let’s just say there are ideas here that would have benefitted from more exploration.
Between scenes of spectacular wealth and family intrigue, the movie is goosed along by well-known Asian-American comic actors: The Daily Show’s Ronnie Chieng as a status-obsessed Hong Kong cousin; Jimmy O. Yang from the HBO series Silicon Valley, as a boorish bachelor who hosts a bachelor party so wild it has to be held on a barge in international waters; and The Hangover’s Ken Jeong as a goofball father, who warns his twin daughters to eat up because: “There are children starving in America!”
You have probably heard that Crazy Rich Asians stands as a milestone in Asian-American onscreen movie representation. While that’s true, it’s a milestone that’s easy to lose patience with. The characters of Rachel and Nick are charming but their relationship feels backgrounded by numbing amounts of money porn, stilted melodrama, and often-strained comedy. Not to mention an entire subplot, which dangles like an awkward hangnail off the main story, concerning Nick’s rich shopaholic cousin (Gemma Chan) and her resentful husband.
Stick with it, though, and Crazy Rich Asian yields some rewarding moments. One of them is a breakout performance from rapper-comic Awkwafina (nee Nora Lum) who plays Rachel’s best friend and advice-giving fairy godmother. Her droll delivery and loose slapstick physicality evokes a young Carol Burnett. She pretty much steals the picture, though the burglary is abetted by actor Nick Santos as Oliver, Nick’s campy fashion designer cousin and “rainbow sheep of the family.”
Then, unexpectedly near the movie’s end, there’s a smart, moving showdown scene between Eleanor and Rachel over a mahjong game. Up to this point Wu (she plays the tough mom in the ABC series Fresh Off the Boat), has seemed too young and passive to be a superstar college prof. But the character, and the actress, seems to find her spine, as Rachel demonstrates how her doctorate in game theory can reap benefits in real life.
Across the table, Yeoh offers a beautifully calibrated reaction, as we watch her slowly recognizing another woman who understands the strategy of sacrifice and how to win by pretending to lose.
Crazy Rich Asians. Directed by Jon M. Chu. Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang and Ronny Chieng. Now playing at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas, Cineplex Yonge-Eglinton, Cineplex Empress Walk, Imagine Cinemas, Market Square, The Queensway Cinemas, and the Varsity V.I.P cinemas.