It’s a bit unsettling to review a movie that has so much riding on it: its producers and studio (Warner Bros.) are eager to see if the Asian-American community—and moviegoers in general—will support Hollywood’s first major film in years with an all-Asian cast. What’s more, Crazy Rich Asians is a topical romantic comedy, not a look to the past like Memoirs of a Geisha or The Joy Luck Club.
The movie bolts out of the starting gate with a lively title sequence designed by YU+Co., followed by the introduction of the main characters, who are irresistibly likable. Then the film backslides into romantic comedy clichés and soap-opera conflicts, especially involving a villainous mother-of-the groom and her endless machinations. (I’m told this was toned down from the novel!)
I’m an admirer of director Jon M. Chu, whose innovative work on the 3D musical Step Up: 3D has yet to be fully appreciated. He and screenwriters Peter Chirarelli and Adele Lim have done everything they can to make their adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s popular novel relevant, authentic, irreverent, and fun. And for the most part, they’ve succeeded. Although there are many ingredients that are unique to the Asian culture, there are other story tropes that one might find in a similar film from any ethnic or racial perspective.
It helps to have an attractive and appealing cast, led by Constance Wu and Harry Golding as the central couple heading for a wedding (she’s middle-class, he’s crazy-rich), Michelle Yeoh (as his harshly judgmental mother), Awkwafina (as Wu’s outspoken college roommate) and Ken Jeong (as her outlandish father). They add welcome comedic flourishes to the through-line of the piece.
Crazy Rich Asians is a social breakthrough that might be compared to this year’s Black Panther. As such, it succeeds in smashing some societal barriers (using the best possible weapon: humor) and giving great opportunities to its talented actors and underrated director. It may not be a great film but it will serve as a flag-bearer for yet another underserved sector of our population.