Movie Review: ‘CRAZY RICH ASIANS’ is a vital, meaningful & monumental romcom
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Rated PG-13, 120 minutes
Directed by: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, Chris Pang, Sonoya Mizuno, Jing Lusi, Ronny Chieng, Fiona Xie, Pierre Png, Nico Santos
Director Jon M. Chu’s CRAZY RICH ASIANS is monumental, not just in terms of representation, but also because it’s just a damn good, brilliant, dazzling romantic comedy populated with richly-written scenarios and colorful, dynamic characters. This is the first time in 25 years that a contemporary Hollywood production has featured an all-Asian ensemble. This vibrant, immersive fantasy is brimming with life and, better yet, culture. It’s totally winning – and built for repeat viewings.
NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is very much in love with dashing, debonair boyfriend Nick Young (Henry “hubba hubba” Golding, whom I’d like to read the novel aloud to me as I drift off to sleep). They’ve been dating for a year when he whisks her away to Singapore for the lavish wedding of his friends Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno). Rachel’s also going to meet his family there – and if you know this genre, you know that means he wants to get engaged. There’s just one small thing: she doesn’t know he’s rich. And he’s not just rich. He’s filthy rich. He’s the progeny of upper-crust society members. Old money. His mom Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) isn’t about to see her beloved son’s heart be trifled with by some American whose values and culture greatly differ from hers – or so she assumes.
For a narrative that could easily have gone wrong in so many ways, screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim stay on course adapting Kevin Kwan’s novel. In lesser hands, this would be a tale that pits two women against each other, fighting over the affections of a man. The mother-son dynamic would come across as Oedipal and creepy. This blessedly never does either of those things. It’s more than obvious the filmmakers have taken great craft and care to create fortified, complex, layered relationships between Rachel, Eleanor and Nick.
There’s a subtlety here that’s lacking in most romcoms of its ilk. Eleanor isn’t the stereotypical portrait of a villainous, shenanigan-causing “monster-in-law.” On the surface, she may sound like she’s threatening Rachel – and she does pull a power move on the stairs of Ah Ma’s (Lisa Lu) home. However, the audience senses that what’s underneath those threats comes from a caring place of lived-in experience – a stern word of warning, cautioning Rachel.
Though there are distinct leads, the film is also very much an ensemble piece. The immediate orbit is, of course, Nick, Rachel and Eleanor, but the way the filmmakers fill out their outer orbit is admirable. Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan, who needs to be in every film starting immediately) is given the biggest role in carrying the narrative’s emotional heft. Her character is forced to hide her identity as a wealthy, powerful woman in favor of her far-less wealthy, bitter husband Michael (Pierre Png). This is symbolized through the jaw-droppingly stunning pearl, ruby and emerald earrings Astrid buys herself – only to tuck them away in her bathroom mirror. Chan’s performance is filled with elegance, grace and heartrending vulnerability. Rachel’s best friend, Peik Lin (Awkwafina), is a scene-stealing force of nature. Dare I say she outshines Wu and her character? She’s comedy gold. Chu lets her off the leash to do some terrific comedic work. She’s the MVP.
The filmmakers have also wonderfully made room for the multitude of Kwan’s vivid supporting characters. Chu and company have made sure that they all have richly-defined moments in the spotlight. Amongst the comedic relief highlights are Cousin Eddie’s (Ronnie Chieng) curtness (“Optimal angles,” he shouts at his family), Oliver’s (Nico Santos) humorous shadiness, Kitty Pong’s (Fiona Xie) ditziness, Bernard’s (Jimmy O. Yang) douchebagginess, and PT’s (Calvin Wong) stalker-adjacent hilarity.
Sure, the locations are lavish (thanks to Nelson Coates’s production design) as are the luxurious wardrobes (courtesy of costume designer extraordinaire Mary E. Vogt). But there are three standout sequences where Chu’s film becomes a breathtaking, swoon-worthy, indelible affair: The Night Market montage is pure food porn, guaranteed to make audiences salivate (as my sense memory is kicking in, making my mouth water). The gathering of the family around the dinner table, bathed in cinematographer Vanja Cernjul’s effused light, sharing stories and making dumplings, is warm and radiant. To see a sequence absolutely drenched in the culture it’s representing with such meaningful reverence is genuinely powerful. It’s a vital scene. The other scene that is assured to have tongues wagging is set at the Mahjong parlor. Even if some audiences don’t know the rules of the game, they’ll immediately understand the power plays between matriarch Eleanor and Rachel. It’s absolutely riveting – and has a fantastic, understated payoff a few scenes later.
What this movie will mean for audiences is truly humbling. Abundant craft and passion went into nailing the universal appeal of its cultural specificity. It elevates and augments a genre long thought on the wane. And it will shape discussions on diversity in cinema for years to come.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS opens on August 15.
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