Chick flicks are a dime a dozen, but movies featuring predominantly Asian actors and actresses in the lead roles? Those are a bit rarer. That’s probably why the new film “Crazy Rich Asians” has taken over cinemas nationwide. I must admit that when I first heard about this film I thought the title alone made it worth staying away from because it just sounds like perfect pandering. However it’s gotten great reviews and a lot of attention which sparked my own curiosity to see if this film rises above it “token” nature and becomes something more than just a basic love story that allows an American minority to stand out for a change. So, is “Crazy Rich Asians” as good as everyone says it is or does it depend too heavily on its gimmick? Let’s dig in. This is my review of “Crazy Rich Asians”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Crazy Rich Asians” is based on the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan and focuses on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor in New York. Chu is dating the charming Nick Young (Henry Golding) who keeps his life and family legacy a secret from Chu. Young is part of one of the richest families in Singapore and decides to invite Chu to his best friend’s wedding where he is to be the best man. Along the way to Singapore Chu quickly realizes that Young is rich and comes to find out who his family really is which intimidates her as she is a member of the lower class. Upon their arrival Chu also quickly learns that Young’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) does not approve of the relationship partially because Chu is an immigrant who was raised in the United States. Despite Young reassuring her, Chu finds fitting in with the wealthy family difficult especially when other potential suitors for Young begin to harass her. Determined not to give up the love of her life Chu teams with her friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and Young’s gay second cousin and family black sheep Oliver (Nico Santos) to turn the tables on Eleanor and prove her value as Young’s potential wife.
Considering a theme of this review is whether or not “Crazy Rich Asians” is more than just a pandering Asian romance film it’s important to note that the acting is not phoned in and in many ways shows just how capable these performers really are. Several stars shine over the course of the story including the main actress Constance Wu who holds her own as a charming leading lady with a heart and an attitude. As Rachel Chu, Wu has to present a woman out of her element but still willing and able to at least try to fit in and she succeeds carrying most of this movie’s main plot on her back. She’s convincingly emotional when she needs to be, she’s convincingly tough and capable when it’s called for and her chemistry with Henry Golding as Nick Young is tremendously believable. Young himself also does a fine job portraying a man who inevitably has to choose between family and love which is no easy task in and of itself. Both characters fall into specific clichés we see in almost every romantic comedy but they’re charming and that’s what matters. They don’t try too hard to be real, but they also don’t phone it in which helped the relationship feel engaging and engrossing for me personally.
By far the most memorable performance in this movie however is Awkwafina as Chu’s friend Goh Peik Lin. We’ve seen glimpses of Awkwafina’s big screen potential already in 2018 with her role in “Ocean’s 8” (another Warner Bros. production by the way) but here she gets to show her comedic chops and talents more fully because she’s front and center. Awkwafina is the source of most of the comedy in this film as the member of a well-off family herself who doesn’t conform for the prim and proper language and pretentiousness of others in Singapore. She doesn’t take herself or the world around her too seriously, even when she’s invited to partake in the festivities herself alongside Chu and Young. Goh Peik Lin provides a character to help Chu feel at home in a strange place and keep her grounded in her own familiar reality while she tries to adapt to a world she’s not used to or comfortable with. Peik Lin is also a reminder to the viewer that not every rich family is stuck up and that Young’s family isn’t exactly the norm. Peik Lin’s family sticks to tradition but is more modern acting as the perfect opposite to the family Chu is trying to join. Awkwafina gets all the best lines, has incredible timing, and is just oh so entertaining. I wanted to see more of Peik Lin even though she does get significant screen time in this movie. I look forward to seeing what Awkwafina does next. I think we got to see her full potential as an entertainer thanks to this film.
Even the mother, Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor, isn’t bad in this movie even if she’s kind of a cardboard cutout of every other stuck up self-righteous mother figure in romantic comedies. Her motivations aren’t always clear or explained properly and her character is pretty simplified to the a few cliché notes: she doesn’t like that Chu is lower class, she doesn’t like that she’s American, and she doesn’t like that her son is putting his emotions above his responsibility as a legacy child, but at least Yeoh is convincing in her role. There are a lot of cliché characters in this film which is inevitable with this genre, but Eleanor might be one of the most frustrating for me because on one hand she has her own unique personality and feel about her and on the other hand she’s exactly the same as every other mother in these movies. She’s more good than bad and it’s a lot easier to feel for her situation than other characters like her, but it’s not quite enough to help her avoid being pigeonholed into the same old stuck up mother character trope that we’ve seen so many times before. Michelle Yeoh does great with what she has to work with, but there’s the problem. There’s really not a whole lot to work with to start.
Despite being cliché and formulaic, which I’ll discuss later, “Crazy Rich Asians” manages to still find its own identity without being weighed down by the need to stick to the same old song and dance. I’m not going to lie it follows a very specific trajectory, but this movie is still charming and engaging in its own right. Despite the fact that I’ve seen this story so many times “Crazy Rich Asians” felt fresh and new. It legitimately tries to embrace its own identity while still sticking to the typical formula and in many ways succeeds which for me made for a fun and unique cinematic escape. Even when I knew what was going to happen I never got bored. Even when a character was predictable I still felt like they were human. “Crazy Rich Asians” might cover all the bases but by the end of it all it hits a grand slam. The dialogue is well written and sincere, the story takes some interesting and unexpected turns, and not once does the movie ever truly feel like the “token Asian romance” film I originally thought it might be. It doesn’t come off as a movie made to try and put Asian actors in the spotlight. Everything flows well and feels very natural. It’s just an all-around fun story that reminded me personally how charming romantic comedies can be even if they stick to the same tropes and cliché’s we’ve seen time and time again.
This movie also just looks awesome. The production value is top notch with plenty of colors, beautiful visuals, and a wedding scene that even I thought was magical and brilliant. For women it provides a look into the fantasies and dreams you’ve all probably had about your big day or your perfect romance a few times in life. For guys it offers stunningly shot backdrops and locations as well as great set pieces that will make your jaw drop. There are hints of traditional Chinese style while mixing in a more modern edge. There’re also subtle details mixed in that common moviegoers may miss on the first viewing but for me the backgrounds, set design and cinematography were among the most gripping aspects of the movie that had me in awe examining the incredible detail put into the scenery. Many romantic comedies rely on bland and lifeless backdrops we’ve all seen before, but Singapore is an incredibly beautiful city that provides a unique but culturally appropriate setting for all the action here. It also helps that it doesn’t feel forced. The book was set in Singapore and the movie follows suit. A lot of times movies pandering to Asian or eastern audiences will be set in China or somewhere near there to break more bank at the box office but the setting here is clearly cohesive to the story. There’s never any question about that. This is the kind of production I’ve always thought Hollywood needed to churn out if they really wanted to do justice to the Asian demographic, both in terms of viewers and actors. It’s a sincere attempt at incorporating Asian culture and settings into a story and I absolutely loved it.
Speaking of Asian culture, I was impressed at how smoothly those aspects were worked into the story as well. “Crazy Rich Asians” contains a narrative that mixes the modern with the traditional. In fact it’s a continuous concept in the overall story that the mother Eleanor sees tradition and legacy as important and believes that Chu could never understand that despite the fact that, unbeknownst to Eleanor, Chu’s own mother, played by Tan Kheng Hua, is also heavily influenced by Chinese tradition herself. One of the most unique pieces of “Crazy Rich Asians” is that is possess the question of whether or not tradition and modernization can coexist. Can someone brought up in the modern world respect the past? Can someone stuck in the past evolve to accept the lifestyles of today? Is it possible to continue traditions without corrupting them? These are deep questions that are littered throughout the movie and are relevant to Chinese culture, a world that is highly modernized but itself also steeped in very powerful traditions. This adds depth to the main conflict and allows “Crazy Rich Asians” to completely embrace its Asian setting while never feeling isolated from the outside world. These are questions pretty much every person has to face, whether it be for cultural, religious or simple family purposes, and it’s pretty cool to see them delved into so strongly here.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While I did enjoy this movie there’s no getting around how formulaic it really is. “Crazy Rich Asians” follows the same basic storyline we’ve seen in pretty much every other love story of the last few decades and no amount of racial diversity or creative subplots and cultural references could help me overlook that. We know what’s going to happen, even when it looks like the predictable tropes are going to thrown out the window. While “Crazy Rich Asians” is far from short on creativity and depth it doesn’t take many chances in terms of the basic love story. As the three acts of the movie play out I knew exactly what was going to happen and could practically call every major event that would create roadblocks and problems for the main pair. Now this doesn’t stop “Crazy Rich Asians” from being a good movie. In fact, it actually uses these tropes and clichés better than many of its successors or contemporaries. But it just felt a little too familiar to me especially since there’s a lot about this movie that feels inspired and unique. It’s odd that this same creativity and inspiration wasn’t put into trying something new with the formula or taking a major chance that left a truly unique mark on the viewer. I think the most impactful moment was the final faceoff between Chu and Eleanor in the closing scenes of the film but even that comes around to a predictable conclusion. I never read the book so it’s very possible that this all falls in line with the source material, but if that’s the case then it’s a flaw in both mediums not just the film.
My only other major issue I had with the film is the strange inclusion of a secondary story involving Nick Young’s cousin Astrid, played by Gemma Chan, who is also in love with someone from a lower class thus making her comparable to her cousin and how his relationship with Chu may turn out. We’re meant to watch Astrid’s rocky relationship with her husband Michael (both pictured above), a former military man who feels inadequate because of Astrid’s rich heritage and see that Nick Young isn’t the only person in his bloodline dealing with judgement. It also gives Chu someone to lean on as Astrid is constantly her go-to person to discuss her issues in her own relationship with Nick. But along the way Astrid’s story takes its own path and all of a sudden she’s not comparable to Chu or Nick anymore. It does lead to a pretty on-the-nose confrontation between Astrid and her husband that challenges how men see themselves when paired with a more successful woman, but overall I felt like it was a shoehorned story that affects the pacing and really never interested me as much as the main story did. I almost would have liked just seeing Astrid and Michael be happy to allow Chu hope that maybe her romance with Nick could work out in the end despite the roadblocks. In the end what could have been a great add in to allow for hope in times of turmoil only adds more turmoil to the story but never reaches the same emotional depth or impact that the main conflict does. Thus, we get a side story that feels unneeded and pretty inconsequential to the overall narrative. It adds nothing to the final product in my humble opinion and I could have done without it, or at least would have liked to see it approached differently.
Despite my initial reservations I did enjoy “Crazy Rich Asians”. Maybe not as much as others, but it’s a solid romantic comedy none the less. The main cast is entertaining and even the most cliché of characters have memorable qualities to them. It never feels like a forced token Asian movie because is completely immerses itself in the atmosphere, setting and culture it’s trying to portray. I do think there’s some wasted potential. There’s a lot of imagination and beauty worked into the set pieces and production but not as much of that is incorporated into the formulaic plot that, as familiar as it is, doesn’t keep “Crazy Rich Asians” from establishing its own identity when its all said and done. It’s a shamelessly amusing and dramatic romantic romp that offers enough to keep both men and women involved and engaged during the inevitable date nights it will spawn. I found it to be an enjoyable, memorable and appropriate offering that doesn’t pander as much as it could have, doesn’t follow the formula to the letter as others have done, and presents viewers with enough creativity and laugh to leave us wanting that inevitable sequel seeing as there are two other books in the series that could be adapted. Whether you’re looking for a fun date movie or just a harmless romantic comedy that will bring the laughs and provide great visual aesthetic “Crazy Rich Asians” is a better than average option to turn to. I highly recommend it.