Director: Jon M Chu
Stars: Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina
Even more than the western, the romcom has been all but purged from cinemas in recent years. An oft-dismissed genre, its comfort food for the soul and as such often adheres closely to a tried and tested recipe. Innovation is rare because the formula is so intrinsic to its success. This leaves it open to mockery. But of late fans have had to increasingly settle for straight-to-streaming releases.
It’s not hard to see why. Traditionally, romcoms aren’t often praised for their cinematic craft or visual dexterity, and their melodramatic tendencies are thought to scale well to televisions or smaller devices. It’s a narrow view, though. Spectacle worthy of the big screen does exist in the genre, as is evidenced here.
Miss smiling through misty eyes in the company of strangers, with an overpriced popcorn in your lap and arm around your date? Then make your way to your local multiplex for Crazy Rich Asians. Based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, this late-summer flick hits every note in the playbook, adhering to template and it does so in serious style. And it even has the audacity to innovate.
Only a month ago I was praising hit-and-miss laptop thriller Searching for progressively fronting itself with an Asian family and squarely treating it like No Big Deal, normalising greater diversity in Hollywood. From title down, Crazy Rich Asians operates on a different level, proudly announcing to international audiences that, yes, this is a Big Movie from America with an almost entirely Asian cast. Every main character has Chinese heritage. Excellent. Where African-American cinema has made strides (though still not nearly enough), Asian-American filmmaking is very rarely afforded any kind of spotlight. Under the circumstances, I’d sing my heart out, too. Here’s hoping this is the turning of a tide and not just a passing fancy from Tinseltown.
More movies akin to Crazy Rich Asians would be most welcome. Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu; a professor of economics who agrees to accompany her new boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to Singapore for his brother’s wedding and, by extension, a family reunion. Little does she know that Nick’s family are incredibly wealthy. They’re old-money rich, and news of Nick and Rachel’s travelling spreads like wildfire… along with rumours of her lowly station.
Having grown up as an ‘ABC’ (American Born Chinese), Rachel has never travelled to her ancestral home before, and the journey ahead of her promises a level of culture shock. A contributing element of this is the perception that she is tainted by her Western upbringing; a ‘banana’ (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). But more than this is a divide straight out of the classic romcom playbook; class. And of course there’s the disapproving matriarch to contend with (the ever reliable Michelle Yeoh).
Crazy Rich Asians hits expected beats, and in this regard there are no exceptional boundaries broken to waste time recounting, but this does afford the film the opportunity to indulge in something that the genre has always unabashedly enjoyed; ogling wealth. Nothing hits the escapism button like first class flights, high-end jewellery and country estates with their own militia. Crazy Rich Asians hits the aspirational lifestyle booster and rarely looks back. Until the inevitable third act lessons are learned, obvs.
Director Jon M Chu brings us endlessly beautiful people enjoying themselves in particularly glamorous places. To that end Crazy Rich Asians soars with the best of them. So of course the costumes are exquisite and the locations are the stuff of envious dreams to us penny-pinching schmos sitting in the cheap seats. This is the stuff of high fantasy, where you are encouraged to ditch the realities of the rich/poor divide and simply go, “Ooooh, pretty!”.
Chu’s history is as something of a director for hire with a couple of Step Up films under his belt, which suits Crazy Rich Asians nicely. As a whole it feels like one giant piece of theatrical choreography, moving this way and that nimbly, keeping to its own internal metronome. Credit also to the writers – Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim – who have funneled Kwan’s narrative expertly across mediums. Secondary character subplots interlink and wrap-up nicely, playing out in short but palatable bites. And then there are the film’s final few scenes, which really knock things out of the park in kick-ass style. Hankies at the ready, everyone.
At two hours, it does feel a little baggy in the middle but, like Magic Mike XXL for example, part of the fun of Crazy Rich Asians comes from leisurely watching likeable characters simply enjoying themselves. The movie hops from party to party along a daisy chain of festivities, and the expansive cast conjure plenty of good will to allow the running time to expand. Awkwafina does charming work in the best-friend role, Constance Wu makes for a grounded lead, while Henry Golding channels 90’s Hugh Grant even as Chu’s camera approves copiously of his rock solid abs. As the parties roll, the movie does its best to educate while it entertains. The Singapore board of tourism will be happy with this one.
The point of view handed the spotlight here is the innovation for which Crazy Rich Asians will be praised, but it also works so well because it simultaneously adheres to formula. Often the boldest progressive leaps are made while wrapping up such transitions in that which we find most comfortable. Remove the politics and Crazy Rich Asians still stands tall as one of the most well-rounded entries in its field for quite some time. Greater representation is a cherry on top.
(Speaking of food, this is one hell of a foodie’s movie; you will leave hungry)