Crazy Rich Asians is essentially a Cinderella story filtered through the now-familiar conventions of a Meet the Parents movie. It also brings some much-needed diversity to Hollywood releases. Those would be pretty good reasons to check it out by themselves, but it’s worth it for other reasons as well. First of all, it isn’t a sequel or a reboot, and that’s reason enough to root for almost any summer studio release. But Crazy Rich Asians has plenty else going for it, and this is without question the best date movie of the summer.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s popular novel, Crazy Rich Asians follows the romantic misadventures of Rachel (Constance Wu), a young Chinese American professor of economics, who she agrees to go home to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding), tabbed to be the best man at the wedding of one of his childhood friends. Nick, however, has neglected to mention that he’s heir to one of the oldest and richest families in Singapore, and one of the most sought-after eligible bachelors in Asia.
In this day and age, it seems a bit of a stretch that Rachel never thought to Google her boyfriend. In any event, she is in for the rude surprise that every single woman in Singapore apparently dreams of marrying her boyfriend. (The audience has been in on the joke since a prologue in London, in which racist British hotel staff “can’t find” the reservations for Nick’s mother, only to be instantaneously put in their places after she makes a quick phone call to her husband, who purchases the place within a matter of minutes.) Hanging out with Nick’s friends, who introduce her to the delights of the city’s street food, she’s still a little slow to figure out how wealthy his family is. The movie milks her naiveté for as long as possible – that is until the big reveal of Nick’s family’s literally palatial estate.
Director Jon M. Chu’s (Step Up 2: The Streets) singular accomplishment here is in crafting a colorful rom/dromedy with broad appeal. Anyone will be able to identify with Wu’s character as she’s whisked into this heady environment. Rachel may consider herself Chinese, but as soon as she gets to Singapore, she finds she’s perceived as American.
She is certainly in a different world, and the movie’s messages about wealth are decidedly mixed. There is, if not precisely outrage at excess, at least a sense of reproof when wealthy characters seem to accept over-the-top luxury with a self-entitled lack of gratitude. Nick and the guys head for an ocean-going bachelor party in international waters, recommended when the party activities include skeet shooting with bazookas.
Rachel meanwhile joins the bride’s friends on a nearby island, where they’re treated to an all-expense shopping spree, endless cocktails and massages. Here it becomes clear that she is the bullseye of the target of the ire of most of the women who assume she’s a gold-digger.
At thirty-six, Wu is a veteran of the Strasberg Theatre Institute, New York theater, independent films and a lot of TV. She’s immensely likable as Rachel, whose specialty in economics is actually game theory, which means you shouldn’t play cards for money with her. Rachel’s mother is a single parent immigrant, ironically more of an issue in Singapore than in New York.
Nick’s mother Eleanor, played by the luminous Michelle Yeoh, doesn’t appear to see a Chinese American woman suitable wife material for her son, Ph.D. or not. Yeoh, who came up through the ranks of Hong Kong action movies (she co-starred with Jackie Chan in Supercop, arguably the best action movie ever made), can dominate a scene without uttering a word. She is aristocratic and patrician here, projecting an icy elegance and dignity with quiet power and complete mastery of her craft. And this is without hitting anyone. But Yeoh also brings complexity to Eleanor, rather than the cardboard dragon lady she could easily have been. Eleanor is a woman fiercely and genuinely protective of her family, and in her eyes, it’s her duty to make sure Nick marries the right type of woman to help him take his rightful place as head of their family empire. We find that her own assimilation into the family was difficult, and Yeoh projects this without overt attempts to attract audience sympathy.
Balancing the arctic Eleanor, the fast-rising Awkwafina plays Peik Lin Goh, an old college friend of Rachel’s, a colorful firecracker from a family whose bourgeois, nouveau riche lack of class is a breath of fresh air from Nick’s family’s palatial mansion and grounds. Awkwafina lights up the screen with an irresistible insouciance, and given that the movie is not the non-stop comedy promised by trailers, exactly what it needs to keep from getting too grim during the inevitable boy-loses-girl part of the proceedings. She’s also getting a lot of exposure quickly, this very entertaining performance following up a scene-stealing role in the recent Ocean’s 8.
But the real find in this fizzy cocktail is Henry Golding, as Nick. Golding who has more or less come out of nowhere, makes one of the most impressive movie debuts in recent memory. The camera doesn’t just love Golding, it seems to have been invented solely to immortalize him. Golding glides through the movie with an Astaire-like grace, a Grant-like suave urbanity, and at six foot one, the thirty-one year old British Malaysian, originally trained as a hairdresser, is two inches taller than George Clooney.
Singapore itself is a huge asset to this movie, gorgeously photographed by DP Vanja Cernjul, most of whose credits are in TV – Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Netflix’s Marco Polo, HBO’s The Deuce. Seen here, the glittering Asian metropolis is Bond movie beautiful, and not just Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, we’re talking full-on Roger Moore travelogue beautiful, in dazzling Technicolor.
Chu has put together a slick, highly entertaining package that ought to boost his stock beyond Step Up sequels and Justin Bieber concert movies. Given that background though, it’s perhaps not surprising that Crazy Rich Asians gets good mileage from Brian Tyler’s bubbly score and numerous Cantopop versions of western hits. Entertaining, engrossing and easy to get lost in, Crazy Rich Asians is the sort of crowd pleaser multiplexes have been starving for this summer.