August 17, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

Grade: B
Director: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Nico Santos, Awkwafina, and Ken Jeong
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 1 min.

On its surface, the plot to Crazy Rich Asians is both irresistible and banal. It’s a standard rom-com involving a Cinderella, her Prince Charming, and his complicated family. The film’s title, copied from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, is direct and accurate. But what generates the film’s flair is the collision of cultures found not only in its setting, but also its filmmaking style.

Rachel (Constance Wu) is a NYC economics professor (also moonlighting as a competitive poker player, a throwaway plot point) who is preparing to accompany her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding, impressive in his feature film debut) to his home in Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Little does Rachel know that Nick is a celebrity back home, the heir to an enormous family fortune and the country’s most eligible bachelor. Rachel soon finds herself thrust into a whirlwind of social media stalking, catty cousins, jealous exes, and the domineering matriarchs of Nick’s disapproving mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), and grandmother (Lisa Lu).

There’s a noticeable lack of patriarchy in the film. Rachel’s dad went missing years ago, while Nick’s father, the head of the family empire, is oddly away on business throughout the film and never appears. Aside from the grounded Nick, the rest of the young men in the film are notably flawed, pampered boys struggling to make good use of their generational means and live up to the expectations of manhood.

The film’s breakout star is Awkwafina, the American rapper and actress who plays Rachel’s college bestie Peik Lin, now living home in Singapore. Awkwafina’s fluid interspersing of blended comedy—Chinese, American hip-hop, and even vague sexual sensibilities—mirrors the film’s milieu, a fusion of Asian and Western, especially American, cultures. Priority is still placed on traditional family norms and homegrown cuisine. At the same time, Western influences abound. Eleanor and her circle of friends and family are devout Christians, members of the Methodist Church. Jazz and Elvis Presley music is everywhere. Peik Lin’s dad (Ken Jeong) decorates his gilded home in the style of gaudy Versailles. Nick’s bachelor party, held on a barge in international waters, includes scantily-clad beauties from multiple European countries. Eleanor scolds Nick for allowing his British accent to become eroded by his time in America.

Likewise, American director Jon M. Chu infuses this frothy fairy tale set in Asia with a breezy, sleek American filmmaking panache, even though the wealthy decadence of Nick’s Asian orbit goes occasionally overboard and almost threatens the story’s easy embrace. Crazy Rich Asians is the first English-language Hollywood studio movie with a nearly all-Asian cast and an Asian American director since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago. There’s inescapable cultural significance is that overdue accomplishment. But the film is also gorgeous and funny, and its themes are accessible and universal.

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