Much-anticipated all-Asian comedy is both specific and universal
Crazy Rich Asians, a sumptuously photographed romantic comedy whose bid for attention is an all-Asian cast, is the second noteworthy film in 2018 in the category of cultural breakthroughs. The first was Black Panther, of course, which not only managed to refresh the fraying superhero genre but also manifested a powerful assertion of black (and especially black female) pride. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t aspire to the gravitas and resonance of Black Panther, but nonetheless it is an important film amid the growing expectation that American movies should reflect the diversity of the movie-going public. The hope is that if films such as these can find an audience and make their studios some money, then we all can see continued diversity in the multiplex in the future.
Crazy Rich Asians goes an entirely different direction from Black Panther to establish its cinematic beachhead: a straight-forward, even conventional romantic comedy, albeit entirely Asian. Constance Wu (from TV’s Fresh off the Boat) plays Rachel Chu, a successful young American economics professor. She’s in love with the gorgeous Nick Young (Henry Golding). When Rachel joins him in his native Singapore for a friend’s wedding, she realizes that Nick has left out some important details in his personal story, specifically that he is a part of a fabulously wealthy Chinese family.
Rachel finds herself in an opulent yet tense dynamic since she is immediately perceived by Nick’s family and friends to be a threat/rival/disappointment/novelty (depending on the individual perspective, of course). With few real allies (Awkwafina as her friend Peik Lin Goh is the rare exception), Rachel must negotiate her way through a tangle of competing loyalties, while also experiencing the rarefied habits of the uber-rich. This tony domestic drama plays out against the colorful backdrop of cosmopolitan Singapore.
The supporting cast of Crazy Rich Asians features many familiar faces: Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as Nick’s patrician mother; Gemma Chan (Humans) as a potential sister-in-law; Jimmy Yang (Silicon Valley) as Nick’s childhood friend; and even Ken Jeong (Hangover) in a cameo as Awkwafina’s nouveau riche father. As is typical in romantic comedies, most of the actors—including the two leads—play types rather than real people. The only exception to this is the truly eccentric and captivating Awkwafina (who also was a bright spot in Ocean’s 8 earlier this summer).
Director Jon Chu, a veteran of action thriller and dance films, keeps the predictable steps of the story moving briskly enough that we don’t notice their creakiness so much. The film only falters in the final act, with a pat resolution that defies both logic and credibility. One leaves wishing the filmmakers were brave enough to honor the integrity of their own characters.
Perhaps, though, the biggest accomplishment of the film is one of its subtler graces. Despite the exotic nature of the environment, both in terms of cultural identity and economic exclusivity, I was won over by the universality of the story. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, constitute a revelation, but Asian stories—just like black stories, Latino stories, or gay stories—are simply human stories, ones with which any audience can identify with if they so choose.
Coming in September: A Simple Favor, a surprising domestic drama from comedy writer-director Paul Feig, Sept. 14; Eli Roth’s humorous horror film, The House with a Clock in its Walls, Sept. 21; Love, Gilda, documentary about SNL pioneer Gilda Radner, directed by Lisa D’Apolito, Sept. 21; and a promising pairing of comic sensations Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart in Night School, Sept. 28.