Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Crazy Rich Asians,' That's What I Want

Is that a ring on your finger, or are you just happy to see me?

Crazy Rich Asians is the kind of movie I was convinced I'd be annoyed by. I blame Sex and the City 2, and its ugly Americans set loose on foreign soil to both conspicuously consume and offend. That film managed to end what had always been an unrealistic yet enjoyable fairy tale about romance and implausible personal budgets on a sour note.

But it's next to impossible not to be charmed by Crazy Rich Asians and its version of a similar modern fairy tale, especially since there's nary a single ugly American to be seen in the entire film. In fact, aside from some very racist British characters who are part of the film's flashback opening, the cast is entirely Asian, the first major studio film to center on an Asian cast since 1993's The Joy Luck Club.

Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an "ABC" (American Born Chinese) who is a professor of economics at NYU. She's dating Nick Young (Henry Golding, making an impressive acting debut after a career of TV hosting), who is also a professor (blink and you might miss that fact). Though they've been dating for over a year, Rachel hasn't met most of his family, and Nick decides to change that by inviting her to Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding.

Now, it might seem a tad unbelievable that a professor of economics with access to a smart phone wouldn't know that her boyfriend is from one of the richest families in Asia, even if he's never actually told her anything about them. Let's just say, she's a far better person than I, who would have been Googling the shit out of his name after our first date. But it's a scenario that works best for the film's story, so that we get to discover all of Nick's secrets through Rachel's awe-struck eyes.

Wu's Rachel is both smart and slightly naive. She's also funny, providing sardonic commentary about her new surroundings, (when they land in Singapore, she's astounded by the plethora of offerings in the airport alone, lamenting that all JFK has to offer is "salmonella and despair"), and not afraid to tease her man about his ridiculous good looks. Too often romantic comedies assume a couple being attractive is enough reason for them to be together. Screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli know that's never enough, giving Rachel and Nick (but mainly Rachel) endearing personalities and smarts as well.

Once they arrive in Singapore, it can be a little hard to keep track of just who all the characters are without the help of a handy family tree (something the book wisely provides), but the majority are cousins (Nick is an only child), aunties, mothers, or grandmothers. The patriarchs in Nick's family are, oddly, nowhere to be seen, but that's probably a wise choice. It gives more screen time and gravitas to the excellent Michelle Yeoh as Nick's possessive and steely mother, Eleanor.

Eleanor is the first barrier Rachel bumps up against in what appears, at first, to be an otherwise welcoming collection of family and friends, but she's more than a stereotypical "tiger mom." You can understand why she would be frustrated with Nick's wishy-washiness when it comes to their family dynasty, and her fears for his choice in life partner are not entirely unfounded, especially when we learn the rough road she had on the way to becoming the ultimate matriarch.

The film centers primarily on Rachel, Nick, and Eleanor, though some time is given to side-plots involving Nick's cousins, particularly Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her troubled marriage. That storyline ultimately feels a little thin, as if a good chunk of it was left on the cutting room floor. Frankly, I could have done without it, especially if it meant more time for Awkwafina as Rachel's college buddy, Peik Lin, who is also rich, but not crazy rich, and Nico Santos as cousin Oliver, who is the story's version of a fairy godmother.

Director John M. Chu has some experience with musicals, having directed several of the Step Up films, and he approaches much of Crazy Rich Asians as though it were an luscious musical, which is perfect for a film centered on opulence. It's not enough to know these people are crazy rich, we have to be able feel the luxury. Sure, sometimes it's all a bit eye-rolling. And yet, seeing synchronized swimmers pop up in the background of a party scene somehow feels...appropriate. He also films food almost as lovingly as he films his characters (don't go to the movie hungry).

A lot will be written about Crazy Rich Asians' importance in the annals of popular culture, and how it proves that, once again, white people don't own these popular Hollywood genres. And that's certainly true. But don't let that importance overshadow the fact that it's also one of the most enjoyable films of the year.


No comments: