***1/2 out of ****
(for some suggestive content and language)
Released: August 15, 2018
Runtime: 120 minutes
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Nico Santos, Chris Pang, Lisa Lu, Ken Jeong
You’re not going to see a more satisfying crowd-pleaser all year.
Embracing and bucking Hollywood formula orthodoxy in equal measure, Crazy Rich Asians delivers the kind of rom-com experience that everyone wants but on its own terms, the kind that studio heads are quick to trivialize, even dismiss, with charts of data metrics to prove their point.
Crazy Rich Asians proves them wrong.
The logic goes: a movie with no movie stars is a financial risk too high for a studio to take, foreign culture films are niche – not popular – fare, and if you want to explore a non-American setting you have to shoehorn in a famous Caucasian lead to the center of it.
Crazy Rich Asians – an unexpectedly smart, classy, even elegant modern fairy tale – adheres to none of these things. Thank God.
Yet perhaps the most important expectation it exceeds is how legitimately resonate it becomes. What starts out as a superior form of escapist fluff (that could’ve successfully coasted on being a playful chick flick bon-bon) ends up packing emotional punches – both feel-good and poignant – that are rooted in deeply personal stakes and defining moral choices.
Based on a best-selling series of novels, Crazy Rich Asians centers around Rachel (Constance Wu, ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat) and her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding, in his acting debut). They’re New Yorkers making plans to travel to China where Nick grew up; he’ll be the best man at his friend’s wedding. This will mark the first time that Rachel has met Nick’s family, so it’s kind of a big deal.
During their journey east, Rachel starts to get a clearer picture of just how well-off Nick’s family is. He’s been coy about it in the past, and while Rachel was keen to his modesty she’s only now beginning to comprehend its degree.
The typical “meet the family” beats ensue, effectively heightened by the financial gap and opposing cultural traditions. Rachel’s anxiety is a given, despite her self-possessed confidence as a successful NYU economics professor.
If anything, Nick’s mother Eleanor (a perfectly-cast Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) sees Rachel’s self-made identity formed from a poor single-parent background as a liability, not a plus; modern American feminist virtues are the antithesis of ancient Chinese family values.
These are balanced with the levity of the other typical beats, namely bachelor and bachelorette parties plus various other wedding day lead-ups – and of course the lush, extravagant wedding itself – all done on a flamboyant scale befitting the moniker “Crazy Rich”.
While there are splashes of PG-13 level bacchanalia, one of the film’s many welcome, trend-breaking traits is its lack of raunchy humor, something that has become obligatory for most studio comedies. This isn’t a movie that’s out to shock; it wants to endear.
Yes, there are some startling gags (one even sinister), but they’re inventive and clever, even propelling the story forward, and rarely base or cheap. Or when they are, they reflect poorly on the people involved, not seen as vicarious rebellion.
But along with the fun and the fizz, there is a surprising level of emotional complexity and relational intrigue. Rachel and Nick are the anchors, and Chu and Golding make for a charming, attractive pair that are absolutely adorable together.
They provide depth and dimension, too, with nicely observed moments, particularly in the small, subtle epiphanies in which Rachel realizes that their relationship is crossing the rubicon from “dating” to “becoming real”, moments that are both exciting yet daunting.
Rachel has a requisite bestie, too, named Peik, and Awkwafina makes her a welcome scene-stealer, giving Peik a Miley Cyrus-styled brash plainspokenness that’s frank and freewheeling but never obnoxious.
The cast is packed with standout supporting work, each playing their parts to perfectly-metered hilts, including Gemma Chan who effectively fills in many of the emotional gaps of a serious subplot about infidelity that had to be truncated in the transition from page to screen.
Director Jon M. Chu weaves it all with a deceptively deft touch, making this an unapologetic entertainment that also confronts its conflicts honestly, with dramatic stakes emerging from characters rather than contrivances. (Chu is set to bring Lin Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning Best Musical In the Heights to the screen, and based on this work here I couldn’t be more excited about that prospect.)
It all culminates in a restrained yet powerful climactic confrontation where you feel the weight of everything that’s on the line, and it gives Constance Wu a monologue showcase of quiet courage and resolve. It’s a moment that so easily could’ve been played as an impulsive, cathartic tell-off, but Wu turns it into one of conflicted yet firm conviction.
It’s a memorable scene that could easily become a classic (along with the movie itself), in part because of how a table-top game plays into it.
It’s a popular Chinese tile-based game called Mahjong. Chu doesn’t waste time explaining its rules or clarifying what the symbols on each tile mean, but none of that’s necessary. Chu understands that those details are secondary to how the game emphasizes the confrontation itself, using the game’s moves and progression to emphasize what’s transpiring between the characters in the scene.
The air of mystery around the game, in fact, will probably pique interest and likely lead to Mahjong having an American moment.
Crazy Rich Asians is the kind of movie that, a generation ago, would only be made as a foreign or indie film. Then, if successful, it would be re-made on a big budget but with an all-white ensemble. Thankfully Warner Bros. took a chance, bypassed that typical route, and did right by the best-selling source material its first time out.
Hopefully after this success and last year’s best romantic comedy The Big Sick (which also embraced its own Southeast Asian culture), Hollywood will start to broaden its perception of what audiences will show up for.
Netflix aggressively pursued Crazy Rich Asians to be exclusive on its platform. By all conventional wisdom that’s where it belonged; in theory, CRA‘s theatrical prospects were suspect at best. I’m so glad the producers turned the streaming behemoth down because the conventional wisdom needed to be turned on its antiquated head.
The beautiful irony here is that this entirely Asian-American cast and its unapologetic immersion into Chinese culture ends up discrediting the identity politics of our current moment. It’s success isn’t in checking off progressive quotas or providing representation (as worthy as that is). It resonates because it’s so universal, because of its common humanity.
Crazy Rich Asians does not have to compromise its cultural integrity in order to maintain its mass appeal. Indeed, the two are inextricably, joyfully linked.