It is possible for a film to be important and culturally significant without it being especially great. For me (and I’m guessing many critics) to call any film great, a large number of factors usually have to line up, from the writing and direction to the acting, score, editing, and all of the other elements that go into making a movie. I’m not spilling some huge secrets of film criticism; that’s just what we do.
I can totally buy into the concept that a person would have a lovely time watching the romantic-comedy Crazy Rich Asians. Even more so, I love the idea that desperately underrepresented Asian-Americans (rich or otherwise) would be quite moved by the first American-made, big studio movie to feature an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, which was released 25 years ago.
But the jokes are so broad, the characterization so flat and the story so formulaic that I had a truly difficult time sustaining the excitement I feel that this film even exists. This isn’t to say there aren’t moments that positively shine, but they seemed hopelessly few and far between. I like my characters three-dimensional, and Crazy Rich Asians makes its characters more types than actual people. That begins with the couple at its center, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, who is the funniest thing on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” series) and Nick Young (TV host Henry Golding), who have been dating for more than a year and living in New York, where she is an economics professor.
Nick is actually a fairly new arrival stateside from Singapore, where his family, in turns out, is one of the richest in that nation, making him one of the most eligible bachelors in the world. But Rachel doesn’t learn any of this until one of Nick’s closest friends in Singapore gets married and Nick decides to use the festivities surrounding the wedding to introduce Rachel to his extended family and friends.
The fact that Nick has been keeping this fairly substantial information from Rachel sent up red flags for me immediately—he’s apparently a great liar. But he tells her he didn’t want his family’s wealth to impact their relationship, which it hasn’t, and they are likely all the better for it. Nothing quite prepares Rachel for the culture shock she experiences in Singapore—and I don’t meant the cuisine and customs.
She is suddenly drowning in rich-people behavior, attitudes and biases about people from less deserving families (like hers). While many of Nick’s circle treat her cordially, behind her back they are ruthless and cruel, especially Nick’s mother, Eleanor, played by one of my all-time favorite actresses, Michelle Yeoh, who rarely gets to play someone so unusually nasty. Blessedly, Eleanor tends to underplay her belief that Rachel is unworthy of her son, and that’s because she’s so used to getting her way, she doesn’t have to push too hard to make someone feel small and worthless.
Rachel does have her allies, including her sassy, streetwise old college friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina from Ocean’s Eight), who moved back to Singapore after school to be with her family; and Oliver (the very funny Nico Santos), who plays the token gay friend/adviser who helps Rachel pick out pretty outfits to wear to all of the fancy parties she’s being forced to attend while there. Brace yourself, the dressing room montages are fierce in this film.
She even manages to befriend one of Nick’s relatives, the glamorous Astrid (Gemma Chan of the series “Humans”), who is trapped in a troubled marriage. I’ll give the filmmakers credit: they don’t shy away from crowding the movie with an exceedingly large number of subplots and supporting characters, but each of them takes away from the main characters in ways I think damage any chance for development.
From the popular novel by Kevin Kwan (adapted by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim) and directed by the questionable choice of Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me 2, and Jem and the Holograms), Crazy Rich Asians is at its best when it concentrates on its core characters. The dynamic between Wu and Yeoh is easily the strongest material, and while their battle of wills may not be especially humorous, they each get in a few zingers at each other’s expense that prove they are more evenly matched than either of them thought possible. Admittedly, Nick comes across as a bit of a mama’s boy, not defending Rachel when he should (another red flag that is never acted upon), but he also seems devoted to Rachel, even if it means distancing himself from his family.
Some of the pretty socialites that circle around Nick, even with Rachel right there, swoop in like locusts to see if they can get a piece of the prize or at least damage Rachel in the process. The film does a terrific job of showcasing many parts of Singapore culture, cuisine and folks from all walks of life, without reducing the people or places to some sort of exotic backdrop for the main stories. I suppose there are messages here about class snobbery and confidence boosting, but so much of it feels trite and overly simplified. This feels like a movie about these people instead of a compelling story about them. Crazy Rich Asians gives us characters when we want people.
Despite some of my misgivings about Crazy Rich Asians, I hope above all other things that it makes a lot of money so that those involved in making it get to make more (hopefully better) films down the road. Perhaps this is the film it had to be in order to get made and released widely. As it is, it’s disappointing as a storytelling, character-building conduit, but I’m guessing you’ll still spend most of its two-hour running time with a big smile on your face.
A contradiction? Perhaps. But embracing contradictions is actually one of the messages of the movie, so it feels okay.
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