Crazy Rich Asians
2018, PG-13, 120 min. Directed by Jon M. Chu. Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Ken Jeong, Nico Santos, Harry Shum Jr., Awkwafina, Sonoya Mizuno.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 17, 2018
A couple splits dessert at a New York cafe. Both university professors, they’ve only been dating a year, but they’re in love, so he’s decided to invite her to attend a wedding back home with him. Someone else at the cafe overhears them – someone nicknamed “Radio Free Asia” for her ability to move information – and this someone swiftly fires off a few texts. Before the happy couple has even paid their bill, all of Southeast Asia seems to know that Nick Young (Golding), the favorite son of a Singapore family dynasty, is bringing his ABC girlfriend Rachel Chu (Wu) home to meet Mom.
Kevin Kwan used footnotes in his addictive bestseller Crazy Rich Asians to explain the cultural mores, the dizzying social strata, the catty shorthand of this milieu. The script by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim isn’t as explicitly instructive, but there’s ample context clues in the posh set’s sniffs at Rachel for being American-born Chinese, and the icy glares of Nick’s mom (Yeoh, luminous, and lethal) at this interloper for nabbing her son, Singapore’s most coveted bachelor.
Of course Rachel doesn’t know any of this going in – Nick has divulged very little about his crazy rich relations – and so as she arrives in Singapore, she moves in a parallel track with the audience in discovering just how crazy rich (like, stupid rich). Crazy Rich Asians may be steeped in Asian cultures, but it satisfies that very American pastime of simultaneously deriding and ogling the conspicuous consumption of the one-percent, and it gets some wickedly funny jabs in at the fabulously wealthy. But it isn’t mean-spirited. Rather, Crazy Rich Asians’ prevailing mood is one of joyfulness. I got a contact high.
Director Jon M. Chu previously tried his hand at a number of genres in a string of profitable but middling films, most of them sequels (two Step Up movies, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me 2). Romantic comedy, turns out, fits him like a glove. He brings a bouncy energy to the genre’s tropes, dispatching “dressing room montage” and “heart-melting declaration of love” like a pro – and with distinctly more visual verve than usually attends the genre. As for rom-com’s standard-issue mouthy best friend? You couldn’t do better than Awkwafina, playing Rachel’s old college roommate and hilariously proving that “nouveau riche” translates to every culture.
That Midas touch with casting extends to the rest of Crazy Rich Asians’ international mélange of actors, who make lasting impressions in parts inevitably abbreviated from the book. Gemma Chan, as Nick’s placid-surface/roiling-depths cousin Astrid, is exquisite, and Nico Santos makes for an enjoyably dishy Oliver, a cousin from one of the family tree’s droopier branches. Playing the leading man, Golding, a model and travel show host in his first big acting gig, doesn’t have a lot to work with, but ably performs his required duties, which are to be devoted, honorable, and swoon-worthy. And Wu quite simply is a stunner. Best known for playing the tough-love matriarch from ABC’s Fresh off the Boat, she betters the book version of Rachel by making her earthier, steelier, and more playful. One of Rachel’s subplots has been dramatically condensed from the book, part of an overall smart snipping to keep the focus on Rachel’s fish-out-of-water story. That means a certain actor doesn’t even make an appearance until a twinkling cameo at film’s end – a sure sign of the filmmakers’ confidence a sequel is coming. To which I say: More, please, yes.