I went into Crazy Rich Asians thinking it looked like a Chinese version of The Prince and Me, and came away thinking I’d just seen one of the freshest romantic comedies in years. The amount of pressure on this film, an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s smash novel, can’t be overstated. As the first major Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in more than two decades, Crazy Rich Asians is being seen as a litmus test for diversity. Sad as that may be, it’s just a fact that movies which look like this simply don’t get made. Fortunately, there is now a reason to expect and demand that there will be a lot more.
Crazy Rich Asians works even though my initial fear of its formulaic nature is totally true. What is so special about the script by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli is how the familiar elements, the Cinderella love story, the fish out of water aspects, are presented through a Chinese culture most of us are unfamiliar with. But you don’t have to be Asian to find so much of this story relatable, funny, and gorgeous to watch unfold.
Constance Wu (from ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat) plays Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU and the daughter of a single mom. We see Rachel’s got some street smarts, too, as she bluffs one of her students in a hand of poker, teaching him a lesson about playing the opponent and not the hand he’s dealt. We get it; that lesson is one she’s going to have to remember herself at some point, but that’s okay. A little foreshadowing never hurt. Rachel is dating the handsome Nick Young (Henry Golding, a Brit-Malaysian actor who will also star in A Simple Favor this year), and for over a year things have been going well. He seems normal and down to Earth, stealing bites of her meal at a local diner. But little do they know, his being seen out in public with Rachel is a big deal. Director Jon M. Chu (he of the Step Up and GI Joe flicks) cleverly and quickly whisks us through social media as this little date cracks a certain segment of the Internet. Within moments it’s like the world knows Nick has a girlfriend. But who is he that anybody would care?
Nick wants to take Rachel back home to Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. She agrees, but when he escorts her into the luxury-class private suite aboard the flight, it’s the first time she figures out that Nick’s family may have some money. Turns out, the Youngs have what is called “old money”. They are the richest of the richest, the elite, and a family dynasty that Nick has chosen to avoid in New York. For him, coming home means dealing with his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), a firm believer in the old traditions that have kept them thriving for generations. She instantly disapproves of Rachel, who she perceives as an American commoner unfit to be with her son, and incapable of handling the thankless life of a woman in their ruthless world.
Crazy Rich Asians has a lot going on, and I was taken aback by how easily it juggles numerous storylines and themes while plunging us feet first in the culture of China’s rich and famous. While the Youngs show off their wealth with a regal flair, the “new money” families, like that of Rachel’s filter-less college friend Peik Lin (the terrific Awkwafina, last seen in Ocean’s 8), are loud with it, drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. Peik’s parents, including a hilarious Ken Jeong as her father, live in a home so big and tacky it looks like it ought to be bulldozed as a crime against architecture. But Jeong also has some of the film’s best lines. When one of their many kids refuses to eat, he says “Eat. There are a lot of children starving in America.” Peik thinks Eleanor sees Rachel as a banana, “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
The love story between Rachel and Nick is sweet but not without its difficulties. She has to deal with more than just Eleanor, but also Nick’s jealous ex-girlfriend relishing in making her life miserable. Yes, it’s a classic story of a plucky girl winning over the rich snobs, but there’s more to it than that. Crazy Rich Asians is a film about lineage and history, something Eleanor wears as a badge of honor one moment, then uses as a bludgeon the next. It’s up to Rachel to take charge of who she wants to be, and to accept where she comes from. Strip down all of the gloss, and there is certainly a lot of that in this extravagant feature, and you have an empowering story of a woman coming into her own. That idea is mirrored in a subplot involving Nick’s sister, Astrid (Gemma Chan), and her marriage to a man uncomfortable with having his wife as the breadwinner.
There’s so much to look at here that sometimes it’s hard to decide where to focus. The cast itself is stunning, and Mary Vogt’s costume designs accentuate while informing us of each character’s personality. We know Peik Lin the instant we see her rockin’ her first pair of Jimmy Choos and Stella McCartney pajamas. The locations are breath-taking; gigantic neon mansions lighting up the Botanical Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, the stunning Marina Bay Sands casino hotel, and an impressive array of floral arrangements, including the rare Tan Hua plant which blooms only at night and wilts before dawn. The decadence is so thorough that it becomes laughable during the silly underwater-style wedding for Nick’s closest friends, Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno).
Predictable? Yes, but Crazy Rich Asians definitely isn’t your typical Hollywood rom-com. With lack of representation on the big screen such a major issue right now, we may finally have the film that swings the pendulum in the opposite direction. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you might just fall crazy in love with Crazy Rich Asians.