Film reviews and more since 2009

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) review

Dir. Jon M. Chu

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★½

A Hollywood movie called Crazy Rich Asians, coming out in 2018 during a time when Asian representation in mainstream American movies would be laughable if it weren’t so pitifully minimized, is a recipe for empty cinematic calories. Here, we have a glossy, glitzy romantic comedy with the director of three Step Up movies and multiple Justin Bieber documentaries at the helm doubly serving as the first time since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 we’ve seen so many Asian actors occupy the mainstream American movie-screen. While more notable for its inclusion than anything else, Crazy Rich Asians is a delectable good-time as it showcases generational talent and lavish cinematography against a mostly average storyline.

The film follows the star-crossed relationship between Rachel Chu (Constance Wu in a slam-dunk performance), an NYU economics professor, and Nick Young (British-Malaysian personality Henry Golding). Rachel is the daughter of an immigrant who came to the United States with little money; she is every bit a product of the American Dream. Nick, on the other hand, was born into a wealthy, dynastic family in Singapore, and the two have set out to travel to Nick’s home country so Rachel can meet his extended family while attending his friend, Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding.

Rachel learns just how wealthy Nick really is when she boards one of his private aircrafts, equipped with every newfound luxury imaginable. When they arrive in Singapore, Rachel learns that she is known too well by the Young family. She’s not held in a kind light, particularly by Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who negatively views her lack of wealth and staunchly individualistic American mindset. Their vacation in Singapore looks every bit like an animated postcard, as Rachel and Nick are swallowed up by unrepentant wealth, grand ballrooms, cocktails, and more dresses than able to showcase in a year’s subscription to GQ and Vogue combined.

Rachel sees she’s talked about by everyone from Nick’s aunts to his family’s servants, all gossiping about the fact that Nick, who could find so many more “suitable” partners, has “settled” for a remarkably unremarkable girl from America, who works a “fine” job but ultimately doesn’t have sky-high aspirations like much of his family. It doesn’t take even one leg of the trip for noticeable conflict to arise between Rachel and Eleanor, whose stern traditionalism clashes with Rachel’s albeit subdued beliefs in mobility and pursuing the goals one sets for themselves. Nick, on the other hand, is divided between his undying love for Rachel and his fierce loyalty to his mother and larger family.

“All Americans think about is their own happiness,” Yeoh’s Eleanor, in a top-to-bottom great performance, says in one scene. The self-absorbed notion of individual happiness and hedonistic attitudes (the irony on Nick’s side is disappointingly never addressed) at the expense of everyone, even family, leads Eleanor to resent Rachel from a point of ideological conflict. Rachel can’t understand why Nick must be shackled down to the point where he presumably only makes decisions that appease his mother. Writers Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim illustrate this cultural conflict in a digestible manner, and even if it isn’t subtle, it creates solid entertainment, which Crazy Rich Asians feasts off of for much of its runtime.

It’s not all plates flying. Rachel’s best friend, Peik Lin, played by rapper and influencer Awkwafina, provides necessary comic relief as the uncouth but brutally honest confidant Rachel so desperately needs when she’s surrounded by people who don’t trust her, much less her character. Awkwafina works nicely as a supporting character, used sparingly but effectively ala Lil Rel Howery in Get Out: just enough that we get the essence of the personality and see the true perks of it before overusing it as a means of a safety net for when things get too dramatic. There’s also a host of pretty visuals to admire. Director Jon M. Chu may indeed lack the most acclaimed resume in film (Lord knows I’ve been critical of several of his projects), but the 39-year-old is part of an onslaught of young, consummate professionals such as James Wan and the Russo brothers who know how to make a terrific spectacle out of almost any premise. Chu is ideal to direct the film insofar that his experience with massive dance-competitions and larger-than-life concerts allows him to encapsulate the intoxicating environment at hand while still remaining focused on the surface-level yet complex conflict at hand.

Constance Wu and Henry Golding, too, have vibrant chemistry throughout, mainly because they’re both eminently likable screen-presences. Wu shows her acting chops because she’s afforded more emotional moments, such as a lippy encounter with Eleanor at the tail-end of the film, while Golding is all too much a pretty face during the meatier moments. Golding’s Nick is arrested by his commitment to his family’s dynasty; Golding himself is also sort of gridlocked by his character as well, which causes him to fail to breakout quite like Wu, who shines like a glistening flute of bubbly on a table in a brightly lit room.

The ravishing sets and multitude of settings are amplified in vibrant color and texture thanks to the dedicated work of Croatian cinematographer Vanja Cernjul, who assures neither he nor the characters are swallow by the decor, but instead complimented by all it has to offer the film visually.

Crazy Rich Asians is essentially a soap opera, boasting the same impossibly beautiful characters with bottomless pockets who look like movie-stars even when they step outside to get their mail. Kept afloat by the charisma of Wu and the scene-stealing Awkwafina, this tried and true Romeo & Juliet story is good-natured but affirms we must demand more from works where representation is at the forefront. I’ve grown so tired of seeing subpar films like I Feel Pretty and Life of the Party commended for basically existing and starring actresses who do not fit the typical beauty mold. At the same time, movies like Searching, which stars Korean actor Jon Cho, BlacKkKlansman, and For a Good Time, Call… exist as important staples not only for representation, but credible storylines that deal with the female/minority experience. When a movie like Deadpool 2 gets praised for its “inclusion” of a queer character, when she gets desperately little screentime and the time she’s allotted exists to have her as the butt of most jokes, that’s deplorably shallow.

Crazy Rich Asians isn’t quite that level of shallow, but it’s not necessarily something that should be viewed as more than a step in the right direction. Hopefully, folks flocking out en masse to see this film in theaters will pave the way for Asian-led dramas and richer comedies to grace 2,000+ screens in American movie theaters across the country. One can only hope those who showed up so quickly to buy their tickets to this will do the same when more challenging, even less accessible films (geographically and thematically speaking) start to finally come out of the woodwork.

NOTE: As of this writing, Crazy Rich Asians is streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, and Ken Jeong. Directed by: Jon M. Chu.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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