It probably isn’t that astounding to realize that the instant charmer Crazy Rich Asians is only the first contemporary major studio release to feature a Westernized all-Asian cast in a quarter-century. Until recently this level of diversity hasn’t been a major concern for Hollywood, and the future of mainstream movies like this probably rides on this one’s success — which I guarantee is assured. This Warner Bros. release is such a feel-good, visually sumptuous romantic-comedy fantasy that it is hard to imagine it won’t be an out-of-the-box smash, a crossover for all audiences looking for an escape hatch from the dark realities of current life. Credit director Jon M. Chu for having the vision, skill and timing to deliver a film that knows exactly what it wants to be and exactly how to get it all up there in Technicolored widescreen glory.
If the romantic comedy genre seemed dead in Hollywood, this sparkling gem with old-fashioned craft and sharp, new-fashioned ideas has just brought it roaring back to life. Chu and his screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim clearly are sharp observers of what made movies like Pretty Woman work so well onscreen. That 1990 film, like this one, actually started from a darker, more cynical place on the page but lightened up considerably as it developed into a romantic fantasy that fit its time perfectly. In the case of Crazy Rich Asians, it emanated from Kevin Kwan’s international best seller, the first book in a trilogy, but the filmmakers have taken it just as a blueprint for something that is more faithful to the tropes that make this genre work on a movie screen, some of it unashamedly so.
One of those, as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), is brilliant casting work — each character an individual and not the kind of stereotype Asian performers often have found themselves trying to overcome in Hollywood confections (this is a looooong way from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). The last time a talented Asian cast got this kind of opportunity on this big a scale was in Disney’s The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, and before that, probably in Universal’s 1961 adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song. On top of all this, Chu has managed to pull off a miracle on a relatively small $30 million budget by enlisting a top-notch crew who made this extravagant cinematic feast look three times that price.
Plot-wise, we have handsome Nick Young (Henry Golding) taking his girlfriend, NYU economics professor Rachel (Constance Wu of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat) to Singapore where his family lives, and where the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta (Sonyo Mizuno) is going to take place. What Rachel never knew is that Nick is loaded; his family among the richest, if not the richest, in that country where they live an opulent lifestyle and run a business he one day was expected to inherit. She is gobsmacked to be sure and carries a down-to-earth attitude that none of that matters. Problems start early when Nick’s mom, Eleanor (the great Michelle Yeoh), is cool to Rachel from Day 1, clearly thinking she is not in Nick’s league. Things get worse on the day of the over-the-top bachelor and bachelorette parties, where Rachel is accused of being a gold digger, out for Nick’s inheritance.
Helping to temper things for her is wise and funny Peik Lin (Awkwafina), acting as confidante and guide into the glitz of the situation, along with the acerbically amusing gay cousin Oliver (Nico Santos), both helping her to adjust and try to conquer the negative vibes. In the middle of this is the wedding itself, a $40 million affair that has to be seen to be believed. Complications arise there and throughout, but the film resists every temptation to jump the shark, and Chu always keeps it grounded in reality, even in surreal circumstances for its female lead.
The souffle falls if the two stars don’t connect. Fortunately they do. Golding has classic movie-star good looks and natural acting ability considering he had no experience of this kind. A real find. Wu is exceptional and completely relatable. Yeoh doesn’t succumb to playing the villain but makes Eleanor completely understandable in the realm of her own upbringing. It is a smart and savvy turn that should merit awards talk come the end of the year. Awkwafina kills it, just as she did in Ocean’s 8. Ken Jeong as her father is a riot as usual. The veteran star Lisa Lu is lovely as Nick’s amah (grandma), and there is superior work from Gemma Chan in a subplot as Astrid, someone who knows the ways of this particular clan but is dealing with her own failing marriage to a frustrated Michael (Pierre Ang), who is having an affair. The list goes on, but everyone shines, as do all the craftspeople including cinematographer Vanja Cernjul, production designer Nelson Coates (and art directors and set decorators), Costume designer Mary E. Vogt and composer Brian Tyler. Producers are Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, and John Penotti.
Crazy Rich Asians looks like the kind of movie that should be tailor-made — if it can break through the comic books and tentpoles — for the Academy’s new so-called “popular” Oscar category (and a sure bet for Best Musical or Comedy Picture at the Golden Globes). It’s an audience-pleaser like no other, and the kind of movie I actually thought Hollywood had forgotten how to make. Warners opens it today.
Do you plan to see Crazy Rich Asians? Let us know what you think.