By Dwight Brown
It’s been 25 years since Wayne Wang directed the winsome romantic drama The Joy Luck Club. That’s the last time a large American studio gave a major theatrical release to a film with an Asian cast. It’s been too long of a wait. But if there’s going to be a breakthrough, the auspicious debut of Crazy Rich Asians is up to the task. It’s romantic, comical and very entertaining.
The movie has a mixed-bag feel: A girl from the “have not” section of town meets a man rich beyond her dreams, which is reminiscent of Pretty Woman. The staggering opulence of wealth on view is mildly like the Fifty Shades of Grey series, minus the handcuffs and rough sex. Wedding sequences with extended families ripe with odd relatives echo My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And the vicious cunning matriarch pulverizing the young damsel who dates her son evokes TV’s “Dynasty.” If any of the aforementioned movies or shows appeal to you, stay tuned.
The base story is from Kevin Kwan’s New York Times international bestseller Crazy Rich Asians, which centers around a young couple who lives in New York. She, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, TV’s Fresh Off the Boat), is an NYU economics professor. He, Nick Young (Henry Golding), was born in Singapore and educated at Oxford. All is well until he is invited to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. He asks Rachel to go with him. If she’d only known how dehumanizing the trip might be, she might not have accepted.
As the couple arrives off their first-class flight in the sovereign city-state island off southern Malaysia, it becomes apparent that Nick is a closet rich scion and heir to the wealthiest family in Singapore who made their fortune in real estate. His mom, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), runs the empire and the day she meets Rachel she casts a cold stare that could give an Eskimo frostbite. Before Rachel, the daughter of a single blue-collar mom, can say hello, she is left fighting for her right to be with Nick and a part of his elitist, Richie Rich family.
Opening scenes depict an incident from years ago, when Eleanor endured some racist discrimination at a hotel. From that point on, you know that this will be an unapologetic Asian-centric film. The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli (The Proposal) and Adele Lim (“Dynasty”) lets outsiders in on Asian humor: Says Rachel’s best friend’s eccentric dad (Ken Jeong, The Hangover) to an offspring at dinner, “Eat. There are a lot of children starving in America.” Wanna know what the slang term “Banana” means? Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
The loving relationship between Rachel and Nick is endearing. The undying friendship she has with her best bud, the wealth-conscious Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina, Neighbors 2; Sorority Rising), who’s never met a pair of Jimmy Choos she didn’t like, is funny. The bad vibes Rachel gets off Eleanor and a host of jealous young women adds a dose of treachery. And as Rachel looks at all the filthy rich people in Singapore, through her working-class eyes, a lesson about values is added to the mix.
Guiding the proceedings is up to director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets), who knows when to work the sad, angry and happy emotions. He’s skilled at filming risqué bachelor parties, elaborate weddings, party scenes, helicopter rides and romantic moments. He adds graphics on the screen and is willing to use any entertainment tricks he needs to make the footage vibrant.
A pop music score (Brian Tyler, Now You See Me 2) whips romantic feelings up into a frenzy. Singapore glistens through the lens of cinematographer Vanja Cernjul (The English Teacher). The gaudy, lavish sets are courtesy of production designer Nelson Coates (Fifty Shades Darker) and set decorator Andrew Baseman (The Nanny Diaries). The suave suits and frilly dresses created by Mary E. Vogt (Men in Black) look stolen from Bergdorf Goodman. Editing duties are nicely handled by Myron I Kerstein (Little Fockers), who brings the footage in at a neat and tidy two hours.
There is something so approachable about Constance Wu. She makes you feel like she’s a close, levelheaded friend—in just minutes. The debonair Henry Golding could be the next James Bond, if that job wasn’t rumored to be going to Idris Elba. The coolness that Michelle Yeoh exhibits as Eleanor is twice as lethal as yelling or screaming. And rapper Awkwafina gets the best lines and steals scenes in the same way that Tiffany Haddish did in Girls Trip. She might be the one actor who squeaks out an Oscar nom. The remaining cast is lively and larger than a football team, with origins from Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea… making this a truly rainbow Asian ensemble.
Comedy notwithstanding and mean girls drama aside, Crazy Rich Asians is the quintessential romantic movie. After Nick tells Rachel “Wherever you are in the world is where I belong,” couples will leave the movie theaters holding hands.
It’s enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. The first Asian movie made in America and widely released in 25 years is a very charming crowd pleaser.