The first American film to feature an all-Asian cast and director in a contemporary setting since Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club hit cinema screens 25 years ago, Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians proves that Hollywood can still produce a glitzy romantic comedy no matter who’s starring in it or where it’s set. Of course, it helps that Chu has assembled such a charismatic cast in this globe-trotting adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book.
Broken down to its essentials, Crazy Rich Asians is a classic Cinderella story. Sure, it’s set within a culture we don’t often see represented on such a scale in this country, but fairy tales need not be the exclusive domain of blond-haired, blue-eyed characters—which is where Rachel Chu comes in. As played by Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat, Rachel is a hard-working, first-generation Chinese-American who’s done her single mother proud by becoming the youngest economics professor at New York University. When her boyfriend Nick Young (dashing newcomer Henry Golding, soon to be seen opposite Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in Paul Feig’s psychological thriller, A Simple Favor) invites her to accompany him to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore, he’s gradually revealed to be far more of a Prince Charming than the frugal Rachel could ever have imagined. Jetting off with him on her first trip to Asia, she’s expecting to fly coach, not to be treated to Champagne and a first-class, private cabin, complete with a bed. She’s nervous enough about meeting Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Chinese-Malaysian superstar Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but when she discovers the man who’s been using her Netflix password and playing basketball at the YMCA is secretly the scion of Singapore’s wealthiest family, Rachel worries that any accomplishments that make her a success in New York might not matter to a woman who demands only the best for her son.
Her fears crystalize when they arrive at their destination and it seems that people are lining up to cut her down. She may be Chinese, but being born in the U.S., Rachel is seen as an outsider—or worse, a gold digger. From the audience’s point of view, however, she blossoms into more of a warrior than a princess as she fights for not only a deeper appreciation of her past, but also of her future. That leads to a battle of wills between two headstrong women determined to write their own happy ending.
If Rachel is to retain the man of her dreams, she’ll need to get past believing she’s out of her league, follow her heart and stand up for herself as she fights for her own happiness—and also for Nick’s. One thing she won’t do, however, is pretend to be something she’s not.
While the film doesn’t pretend to be Shakespeare, Chu manages to mine a good deal of drama as he contrasts the cultural differences between the crazy rich and the middle class—along with somewhere in-between, a place that’s inhabited by nouveau riche family the Gohs. Led by Wye Mun (Ken Jeong of The Hangover series) and his wife Neenah (Koh Chieng Mun), the Goh clan has borrowed their estate’s gold-plated design aesthetic from “Donald Trump’s bathroom,” according to a crack from the couple’s daughter, fashion-forward Peik Lin. Played by Queens-born rapper/writer/actress Awkwafina of Oceans 8, Peik Lin is Rachel’s former college roommate in the film’s most broadly comic role. Sporting a short blond wig, the “Asian Ellen” hilariously prances about like she owns the picture—which she practically does. A little of Awkwafina goes a long way.
Building off a script adapted by Peter Chiarelli, Chu—a director who’s had an up-and-down career making both hits (Now You See Me 2) and misses (Jem and the Holograms)—crafts a picture that doubtlessly benefits from his own experience as an Asian-American. A screenplay polished by Malaysian-born television writer Adele Lim also helps to add more authenticity and specificity to a story that begged for it. They diverged from Kwan’s book by conceiving a new third act that resolves the inevitable showdown between Rachel and Eleanor without resorting to villainous theatrics.
Instead, Nick’s old girlfriend, Amanda (Jing Lusi), a jealous socialite, handles those duties. In fact, there’s plenty of duplicity among the characters that feature into the numerous subplots, with genuinely strong supporting roles. Standouts include Gemma Chan (Humans) as Nick’s favorite cousin, Astrid, who becomes one of Rachel’s confidants; Pierre Png as Astrid’s emasculated husband, Michael; Chris Pang (Marco Polo) as Colin, the groom; Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina’s dancing droid) as Colin’s beautiful bride; Nico Santos as Oliver, the “rainbow sheep” of the family who doubles as Rachel’s fairy godfather; and 91-year-old Lisa Lu (The Joy Luck Club) as Ah Ma, Nick’s grandmother and the true matriarch of his family.
In fact, it’s Ah Ma who holds the key to understanding the dynamic that unfolds between Eleanor and Rachel, adding cultural complexity to a tale that’s old as time.
Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie, Victoria Loke, Janice Koh, Amy J. Cheng, Koh Chieng Mun, Tan Kheng Hua, Constance Lau, Ken Jeong and Michelle Yeoh. Written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan. Directed by Jon M. Chu. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, South Bay and in the suburbs.