'Crazy Rich Asians': Don't call it a romantic comedy, please
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a light drama with threads of comedy and romance, but please don’t use that phrase to describe it. You know the one. Even when it adheres to some of the tropes of the Genre That Shall Not be Named, the movie’s effervescence and ambition transcend the limitations of the label.
Director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel takes pains to be a little more serious than it appears. It’s glossy and inviting, both visually and tonally, and holds tightly to the familiar story beats of many commercial comedies. It’s a dynamic-looking film, with clever editing, animated subtitles and a few virtuoso shots of a type not often seen in less-enterprising comedies, which tend to point the camera at something or someone funny, and let it/them be funny.
Chu stages a dazzling establishing shot not just to impress us - although we most certainly are wowed - but to capture the feeling of the moment: On her first trip to Asia, a middle-class Chinese-American woman experiences an opulent party thrown by Singapore billionaires. She notices an taxidermied tiger in a grand hall, an apt metaphor: This wealthy real-estate family is the apex predator, and she may feel like a lesser life form in its presence. Take it further. Tigers are rare and endangered, mostly due to like-minded land developers. And there it stands, forever frozen, not moving. The family patriarch killed it, conquered it. And in this position of power, the family established rigid tradition that’s big and stiff like a stuffed animal, never to move forward again.
Anyway - the camera tracks and tracks through the glitzy throngs of partygoers in an extravagant setting, and the long take conveys the quiet, overwhelming intensity that Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) no doubt feels. Mind you, this is all subtext, because it’s essentially Rachel’s “Meet the Parents” situation. And where that movie indulges toilet-humor debasement comedy that’s all-too-American, “Crazy Rich Asians” is bubbly and funny, but is about more than just jokes, and has many relevant things on its mind.
Rachel has been dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) for a while. It’s serious. It’s love. He invites her to visit his family in Southeast Asia for his best friend’s wedding. They board the plane, and they’re escorted to a private luxury suite outfitted with champagne and fancy pajamas. Her eyebrow raises. “My family does business with the airline,” Nick says. She prods him a little. “We’re comfortable,” is his loaded reply. If practicing understatement was digging a hole in the ground, he just excavated the Grand Canyon: he’s essentially the heir to a massive business fortune belonging to the richest family in Singapore, and a prince in status. Maybe he should’ve told her sooner. But for a man hoping to find someone to love him for who he is and not what he has, can you blame him? It’s an impossible situation.
Back in America, Rachel and Nick are professors at New York University. She teaches economics, a crackling bit of irony, considering the difficult economic lesson she faces. (You’re never too old to learn something, the movie implies, in a few instances.) But Rachel, raised by a single mom - played by Kheng Hua Tan, making the very most of very few scenes - is strong and confident. She rolls with all of it: the indulgent bachelor/bachelorette parties, the unfairly nasty glass-slipper and gold-digger comments, meeting Nick’s warmly intimidating grandmother Ah Ma (Lisa Lu), the dumpling-making traditions. Some family and friends are kind, some are cruel, and some walk the line between.
Nick’s mother, though, is something else. Michelle Yeoh is a powerhouse as Eleanor Young, a chilly villainess enforcing expectations on her son and the woman he loves. Those same expectations made her who she is today, we learn. Yeoh avoids the obvious, scenery-chewing overtures of a control-obsessed elitist enforcing her will upon the younger generation; rather, she finds the profoundly compromised, and perhaps broken, woman buried deep inside the character, and barely utters a word about it. But that woman inside the woman is very much present.
The movie begs a superficial comparison to “The Big Sick”; both smartly develop culture-clash comedy into something relevant, modern and progressive. “Crazy Rich Asians” takes it a step further, finding signficant cultural expanse within the same ethnicity, something we can sum up succinctly: That’s money for you.
Another well-moneyed Singapore family is mixed into the plot. The Gohs aren’t quite as rich as the Youngs - only, say, Donald Trump-rich. A joke, lifted direct from the screenplay: Their gaudy palace “is inspired by Donald Trumps bathroom,” says Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina, of “Ocean’s Eight”), Rachel’s best friend from college. The goofball Gohs - who include Ken Jeong as the Elvis-pompadoured, leather-pants-wearing dad, Wye Mun Goh - provide Rachel a safe place to land when things inevitably get rough on the Young estate.
I liked how the film contrasts the two families: one is crazy and rich, and the other is crazy-rich. The Gohs’ wealth is tacky and ugly superficially, but they’re still emotionally grounded, genuine in their affection. They all sit down together for dinner, and when the kids won’t eat what’s on their plate, Wye throws the movie’s most devastating punch: “There’s a lot of children starving in America,” he quips. Pow. The stereotype hits the mat, down for the count.
Early in the film, Rachel teaches a lesson in probability by staging a poker game with a student, and illustrates how emotion can cloud rational judgment. She then finds herself in a most improbable situation, in reality and divorced from theory. It tests the strength of the lecture she just gave, as well as her economic, cultural and gender statuses. In fact, the movie’s smartest hand is its feminist themes, illustrated in the struggles Rachel, her mother, Eleanor and Ah Ma have faced. It’s time to kick down a few barriers, “Crazy Rich Asians” asserts, wisely, cleverly. Finally.
‘Crazy Rich Asians’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan
Director: Jon M. Chu
Run time: 120 minutes