Crazy Rich Asians has landed fresh off the boat and is going to make a huge splash regardless of final box office numbers or the Rotten Tomatoes score. In a similar vein to other recent “it’s about time” cinematic entries like Wonder Woman and Black Panther, its overall impact with its virtually entirely Asian casting on the current sociological landscape will probably take a while to fully distance comparing the film’s impact from the simple question of how good of a film it is.
The film itself is a rather charming spin on the romantic comedy genre trope which features a young couple encountering one of the couple’s extended families, who turn out to find the pairing entirely unsuitable. This is most often due to differences in social status, but it has been done on any number of excuses for the family not to approve of the newcomer. Taken just on that level alone, the film is fine — it hits all the requisite points and gets us through the disapproving family member and more somber side-character arcs to a heartfelt resolution.
What sets Crazy Rich Asians apart from many of its ilk is that the screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan, is well crafted in a smart way. The comedic side-characters aren’t too dissimilar to the eccentric characters we’ve all met in real life, and the banter between characters who have known each other for years feels natural, rather like a well-worn favorite piece of clothing.
Constance Wu as Rachel Chu and Henry Golding as Nick Young are the 20-something couple who met in college, and even though they’d both graduated a year earlier, they’re still dating and going strong. Nick decides that a family wedding is the perfect time to invite Rachel back to Singapore to meet his family. Unknown to Rachel, it turns out that Nick is the heir apparent to a massive Southeast-Asian real estate empire. Nick’s mother, Eleanor Sung-Young, is played by Michelle Yeoh, and her sheer presence in any film works perfectly here.
While Rachel isn’t any slouch of a catch — she’s an economics professor at New York University — since she’s both an American and un-moneyed, mom is simply not having any of the idea that Rachel could possibly be anything other than a short-term distraction for Nick. And so the story unfolds from there. Yes, you can largely connect the dots you could expect and you’d be mostly right. However, the banter between the characters, and especially Rachel’s best friend, Goh Peik Lin (played by Awkwafina), and Nick’s second cousin Oliver T’sien (played by Nico Santos), are great comic relief and serve as a translator for members of the audience who might not be as familiar with some of the goings-on and customs.
The film is as much of a tourism plug for Singapore as Lord of the Rings was for New Zealand. There’s an entire montage sequence of street-food porn that only make those in the audience really wish they didn’t just have overpriced popcorn to munch on. Also there’s barely a wide-angle exterior shot to be seen which doesn’t prominently feature at least one major hotel branding sign.
Subtle twists in the screenplay also serve to elevate the film from its compatriots. Nick’s father, while mentioned, never appears in the film, leaving Eleanor to carry the weight of the family. Rachel is also cast as the competent professional of the pair, with Nick being the slightly less fleshed-out character (the latter trope is almost always imposed on the female character of the pair).
For people looking for ideas for exotic weddings if money is literally no object, this film will also inspire more than a few to ask their local cathedral event planner, “so how much would it cost me to be able to flood the center nave to about two inches deep?”
What the film does well for myself, especially as a non-asian viewer, is to help remind how many things are common across cultures — the deep-seated feelings of obligation to family, that wealth doesn’t always bring fulfillment, that some relatives are always just a bit crazy, and that when mom really disapproves of something, you’d better be ready to fight for it. There’s a few gut-punches in lines delivered by characters you don’t entirely expect, which again goes back to the film being a very worn and familiar storyline, freshened up with sharp writing and solid performances.
Check this one out, and definitely, if you can, do so with a full audience in the first week or so. Even if you don’t share the same heritage, some things are universal.
Crazy Rich Asians opens stateside on Friday, August 15th, 2018.
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