Among us Asian-Americans, the anticipation for Crazy Rich Asians has been something like what African-Americans felt for Black Panther. The difference is, African-Americans have Ryan Coogler, and we have the guy who directed Jem and the Holograms. Relax, it isn’t that bad. Though Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy, it’s like Black Panther in that it’s a big, opulent ensemble piece that allows many people to shine, and it’s something that both you and your old Chinese grandmother can enjoy.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s comic novel, which gives the movie its eye-catching title, the story concerns Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor who’s been dating humble yet devastatingly handsome fellow professor Nick Young (played by British TV travel host Henry Golding) for a year before he takes her back home for his best friend’s wedding. Only then does Rachel find out that the Youngs basically own Singapore, and Nick’s in line to inherit it all. The insane wealth is overwhelming for her, and that’s before Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) declares war on the relationship and tells Rachel straight out that she’ll never be good enough for her only son.
The novel’s plotlines are pared down by screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, but director Jon M. Chu still has trouble accommodating this large canvas of people. The subplot where Nick’s cousin (Gemma Chan) sees her perfect-seeming life disintegrate is particularly balky. The script doesn’t shed much light on the tensions between Old World Asians and the people they sometimes dismiss as ABC (American-born Chinese to you), and the scene in which Eleanor massively humiliates Rachel at the wedding doesn’t land like it should. I wish, too, that he’d given this more of a sense of place — Singapore is a tiny but distinctive country where the people are Chinese but the culture is just as much Indian, Thai, Indonesian, and British.
Still, Singapore’s tourism board likely won’t care, given how lovingly Chu dwells on the dishes in an early sequence when Rachel, Nick, and the wedding couple (Chris Pang and Sonoya Mizuno) romp through the stands at Newton Food Centre. (As Nick says, this country is the only place where street food vendors have Michelin stars.) If you’re not scouting restaurants while watching this movie, you may well be scouting wedding locations, as this movie finds some enviable architectural backdrops like the Marina Bay Sands hotel, with its three skyscrapers joined by a rooftop park and swimming pool. The music on the soundtrack is well-chosen: A Mandarin-language cover of “Money (That’s What I Want)” opens the film, and the filmmakers know that no gathering of old Chinese folks is complete without a scratchy recording of “Ye Lai Xiang.” Chu kicks into high gear during the wedding dance (he directed two of the Step Up sequels), and he luxuriates in the fine clothes and jewelry on display here.
This film might degenerate into wealth porn if not for the energy of the supporting cast. We don’t have enough of Ken Jeong as a nouveau riche Singaporean with enough gold in his house to make the Trumps envious, but we do have Nico Santos as a portly gay cousin who takes a shine to Rachel, Ronny Chieng as a pompous jerk of a relative, and Jimmy O. Yang as a billionaire bro who throws a tasteless and horribly expensive bachelor party on a cargo ship in the middle of the ocean. Mizuno throws herself around with abandon as the bride — she’s acted in heavy stuff like Ex Machina, but this ballerina should really be in musicals. Best of all is the rapper Awkwafina as Rachel’s bleached-blonde college friend, who strides confidently in her pajamas through one of the Youngs’ elegant parties, snapping selfies as she goes.
This cast knows how few opportunities there have been for actors of Asian descent. Even with Hollywood making more movies for the Chinese market (like last week’s The Meg), the suits are still slaves to the mentality that Asians can’t carry a film, to the point where American actors have moved to China or South Korea to find work. That’s embarrassing, almost as embarrassing as Harold and Kumar accounting for three-fifths of Hollywood’s Asian-American films in the last quarter century. That status quo needs blowing up, and if Crazy Rich Asians can do that, great. For now, I’ll settle for its well-heeled charms and the prospect of seeing some of these actors again in bigger roles.
Crazy Rich Asians
Starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding. Directed by Jon M. Chu. Written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on Kevin Kwan’s novel. Rated PG-13.