“Crazy Rich Asians” is here to brighten your summer.
All eyes are on this romantic comedy as the first studio film in twenty-five years to star Asian American actors in leading roles.
Constance Wu leads the cast as Rachel Chu, a Professor of Economics at NYU. By American standards, that’s a pretty impressive addition to a resume. Rachel is the youngest professor at the university, and we meet her as she commands the attention of her class by teaching them on their level. She’s not a boring, stuffy academic. She has spunk and style. But in a way that earns the respect of her students.
Rachel has been dating Nick (Henry Golding) for over a year. We first meet Rachel and Nick as a couple over dinner. They seem like any normal people in love. Nick is about to head back home to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and he decides, quite at the last minute, that Rachel should join him. It happens to fall in line with her spring break, so she agrees with no hesitation. Nick doesn’t talk much about his family and she wants to know more about him.
And it’s during this evening meal that we get the first glimpse into what Rachel might be walking into when she travels to Singapore. Two women in the restaurant recognize Nick. One sneaks a photo and texts it to a friend. This launches a full social media investigation into the identity of the woman daring to dine with The Nick Young. Within minutes, she is discovered by people who decide instantly to dislike her.
Before she ever has the pleasure of meeting Nick’s mom.
Constance Wu is great as Rachel. She is smart and funny, sometimes shy and anxious and other times bold. This role is vastly different from her character Jessica Huang in “Fresh Off the Boat.” And yet, there are glimpses of Jessica in Rachel, too. One of the things that makes Rachel such a refreshing character is that she isn’t ridiculous. She doesn’t fall victim to a sudden case of klutziness or the inability to stop saying embarrassing things. Wu gives us a leading lady that is capable and good. She doesn’t try too hard or get everything wrong. In fact, she gets it all very right.
Henry Golding is a new face for American audiences. The Malaysian and British actor rose from hosting a travel show to co-leading the biggest romantic comedy in years. The camera loves him, and so will audiences. If Golding stands out for any one thing in this movie, it is the way he looks at Rachel. It’s love, yes. But more than that, it is the look of admiration.
His natural charm and charisma makes him perfect for this role as the heir apparent of an untold fortune. What makes his role extra fun, though, is the way he is totally fine giving time to the female gaze as he takes off a shirt or laughs when Rachel declares “Hubba hubba!” He’s having a great time here, without ever feeling like a newcomer. Golding belongs in this cast of greats.
One of those greats is undoubtedly Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s mother, Eleanor. Yeoh has been working in film for years, with roles in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and most recently on television in “Star Trek: Discovery.” Yeoh has never disappeared from the business, and yet it seems that every time she appears in a high profile project, people suddenly remember how talented she is. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” she is a mother who loves her family, but in a way that doesn’t give her patience or interest in outsiders. Yeoh’s performance is terrifying, but not in a menacing way. She is capable of smiling sincerely. Sometimes she laughs even when she doesn’t have to, because she has a sense of humor. She isn’t a heartless person. She is stoic, not prone to let her guard down because she has spent so many years building her defenses.
Michelle Yeoh’s work is deserving of the ensuing Oscar buzz in the same way that Meryl Streep deserved her nod for “The Devil Wears Prada.” Which isn’t to say Eleanor is anything like Miranda Priestly. In fact, unlike Miranda, we get the chance to really understand Eleanor’s point of view without being asked to agree with it.
There are a lot of great supporting characters that pop in and out of the story. Of course, Awkwafina will grab a lot of attention. She steals every scene she’s in. There are just too few of them. Awkwafina plays Peik Lin, an old college friend of Rachel’s who lives with her family in Singapore. Her dad is played by Ken Jeong in a performance that manages to never be too much. Their father/daughter dynamic is so relatable as he does something silly and she rolls her eyes in embarrassment and banishes him from the room.
It would take too long to go into the funny and enjoyable performances from so many great people. But there are so many that deserve to be recognized, including Nico Santos, Chris Pang, Lisa Lu, and Sonoya Mizuno, just to name a few.
One of Nick’s many relatives is his cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), who uses her status for both charity work and extravagant shopping. Clearly, Astrid is coping with something and it is a separate storyline that unfolds alongside Nick and Rachel’s. Astrid is married to Michael (Pierre Png), a businessman who says he is perfectly fine with the fact that she is worth more money than he is. But something isn’t right, and we gradually learn more about what that is.
While Chan performs the part well, there is something about this plotline that doesn’t quite work. It deals with important cultural issues inherent in a very traditional society. There is some exploration of feelings of inadequacy and needing to hide pieces of yourself. Those are subjects worthy of examination. And perhaps they were even right to look at in this context. But the way Astrid’s story is injected into the film, it plays out almost like an afterthought. It doesn’t quite fit in with the rest and feels almost distracting. Which is not to say it’s bad. In fact, I would love to see an entire movie that focuses on Astrid and Michael’s marriage and their myriad of issues.
Director Jon M. Chu managed to exceed expectations. “Crazy Rich Asians” is so well constructed that you could almost forget that Chu’s previous films include “Now You See Me 2,” “Jem and the Holograms,” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.” This movie sparkles in all the right ways. It is colorful, optimistic, and pulls the audience into this exotic world of the super-rich. Chu knows how to keep his story moving, and never seems to bog things down with too much emotion or too many details.
Some of that credit belongs to Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, who adapted the screenplay from the novel by Kevin Kwan. Chiarelli and Lim paint a picture of a family tied together by duty and responsibility, more than out of love. They accomplish this with punchy dialog, but also with the way they roll out details about each character. This is a movie that delves into questions of identity and expectation, that plays on stereotypes in an effective and funny way. The movie never feels ridiculous because the script isn’t ridiculous. Even when things move into familiar and somewhat cliched directions, it is a satisfying journey.
The movie is also accented with a great soundtrack that includes covers of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and Chinese versions of “Yellow” and “Material Girl.”
Was “Crazy Rich Asians” worth the 25-year wait? It’s definitely a good one. But that doesn’t make it okay that any underrepresented group had to wait a quarter of a century for their moment. This is a film for people who love, love. It tells its story with an Asian and Asian-American cast. They all deserve to revel in this success, and we deserve to see much more of them.