OnScreen Review: "Crazy Rich Asians"

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Last week I went to the movie theater to check out what all the hullabaloo was about The Meg when I saw that it was outperforming expectations at the box office. Turned out to be a waste of time. Normally, I wouldn’t tempt fate by doing the exact same thing with another new release, but Crazy Rich Asians had garnered considerably better overall word of mouth, so I decided to check it out when I was able to get to the theater Sunday. I had also seen headlines that it has been a quarter century since Hollywood last produced a film that featured an all-Asian cast (1993’s The Joy Luck Club), which also made the release of this film noteworthy, if not for ignominious reasons. I wasn’t even in high school when The Joy Luck Club was released.

I went into the screening not knowing anything about the film. I had managed to avoid the trailers for the film and hadn’t read any reviews, I just knew it had a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I had thought it was a comedy set in America, but I was only partially right on both accounts; it’s a romantic comedy that briefly takes place in New York City but is mostly set in Singapore, which is a gorgeous city and a genuine highlight of the film. The film is about the crazy rich after all, and it takes full advantage of the city and some other amazing locales. One scene takes place amongst the street vendors and the food looks absolutely delicious.

At the center of this love story are Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding), who have been in a relationship for a year. She is an economics professor in New York. Nick is a history professor, but also comes from an incredibly wealthy family in Singapore that made their fortune in real estate development. The family comes from “old wealth” in China. This wealth of his family is a detail that he has withheld from Rachel but reveals to her when they travel to Singapore for a wedding where he will be best man. Nick’s return home with Rachel causes quite the stir in the extended family and in the gossipy friends of the family. It’s her chance to make a good first impression, but some don’t even want to give her that chance, not the least of whom is Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).

Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel or tell us a new story. Romance, drama, comedy, horror, these stories have a universal language that transcend language and geographical barriers. What Crazy Rich Asians does is freshen up the formula with new faces at the center and expose us to a culture and way of life that is not typically seen in mainstream Hollywood films except in fish out of water stories. This film is immersed in the wealthy lifestyle of the family in Singapore. It addresses the traditions and familial expectations that still hold a prominent place in that culture.

But the film also shows that it is a culture that is in transition and that there is a unique mixing of the old traditions with the way of life in the modern world. Some of this is subtly expressed through the soundtrack of the film, which features a lot of pop hits from the past several years sung in Chinese; songs ranging from Madonna’s “Material Girl” to Coldplay’s “Yellow” work to great effect. The conflict of old and new is embodied in the struggle between Rachel and Eleanor for Nick. Eleanor and most of the family expect Nick to take over the family business and return home and Rachel is viewed as the impediment to this happening.

While I thought the rapidly advancing cold war between Rachel and Eleanor was handled very well, I thought a scene during the bachelorette trip that made it known to Rachel in no uncertain terms that she was not welcome was a bit over the top. One thing I noted about the plot is that it was very comfortable in its pace and took its time in getting to the conflict, to the point that I actually began to wonder if there was actually going to be any conflict in the film. When it kicks in, though, it certainly kicks in. A big confrontation between Rachel and Eleanor ends up being over a game of Mahjong. It’s a game that I am completely unfamiliar with, but I appreciated that the film didn’t sugarcoat this highly popular Asian game. Ultimately, you don’t need to understand everything that is going on with the game to understand what is going on in the scene, much like how you don’t need to fully understand the intricacies of poker to understand a tense poker scene. There is little-to-no catering to American audiences with this film, and it is better off for it.

In addition to Wu, Yeoh, and Golding, the cast also features some faces that may be familiar to some people. Most prominent in the supporting roles are Gemma Chan as Astrid, Nick’s cousin; Awkwafina as Peik Lin Goh, Rachel’s old college roommate; and Ken Jeong as Wye Mun Goh, Peik Lin’s father. Jon M. Chu is the director. A quick scan of his previous credits (Step Up 2, Step Up 3, G.I. Joe Retaliation, and Now You See Me 2) makes this film something of an outlier. But he clearly connects on a personal level with the source material, a 2014 best-selling novel that is part of a trilogy, and he makes a lot of great choices with this film.

I feel like things could go one of two ways in the long run with this film. It will almost certainly generate a sequel. But beyond that, will this film ultimately become a flash in the pan like The Joy Luck Club or another non-traditional romcom like My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Or, will Hollywood take this moment and build off it in a way that leads to more inclusion and diversity and, dare I hope to dream, a better overall quality of films. Inclusion and diversity is not just about skin color, it’s about the diversity of storytelling.

Frankly, fans of the romcom genre seem to have a pretty low threshold for they’re willing to accept as entertainment; in terms of quality vs. quantity, it’s right up there with horror in that regard. Crazy Rich Asians has no trouble clearing that low bar as it is a competently made and entertaining romcom. This is a film that Asian Americans should flock to and demand that more films be made like it. This is also a film that romcom fans should flock to and demand that more films be made like it because it is one of the new gems of the genre. It’s a refreshing and enjoyable romantic movie that has broad appeal.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars