Based on Kevin Kwan’s satirical novel of the same name, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the story of the Chinese-American Rachel Chu, a New York University professor of economics who’s persuaded by her Singapore-born boyfriend, fellow NYU professor Nick Young, to accompany him to his family home in Singapore to attend the wedding of his best friend.
What Rachel doesn’t know is that Nick is the scion of Singapore’s wealthiest and most powerful family, and that his best friend’s wedding is Singapore’s social event of the century. Rachel already suspects that Nick will use the occasion to propose to her…but doesn’t expect that in Singapore Nick’s proposal will be an occasion reminiscent of Prince Charming’s fitting the glass slipper to Cinderella’s foot.
“Crazy Rich Asians” sets a playful tone early in the picture when a snappy new version of the old Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford rock ‘n roll standard “Money (That’s What I Want)” plays over the opening credits and establishing shots with its familiar lyrics performed in Chinese. The movie then segues smoothly into a pleasant enough social comedy-slash-travelogue, as the American Rachel is introduced to local Singapore locations, customs, and cuisine.
But before long the picture dissolves into a more familiar triangulation of affection: Nick’s influential and traditionalist mother Eleanor, a society maven whose personality resembles that of the Dragon Lady without that character’s endearing qualities, strongly disapproves of Nick’s American girlfriend. Eleanor prefers that her son sacrifice romantic happiness in America in favor of a life of misery in Singapore—returning to his homeland to assume his ancestral obligations as the heir to the family fortune.
“Crazy Rich Asians” benefits strongly from the casting of the almost impossibly attractive Constance Wu and Henry Golding as Rachel and Nick. Individually Wu and Golding are physically stunning, but together they resemble the figurines atop a wedding cake, if those figures were modeled on Venus and Adonis.
Fortunately, both performers possess the acting chops to not only match their appearances, but also to make their characters sympathetic and genuinely likable. Which is no small feat, especially considering that the Cambridge University-accented Golding has no previous acting experience—the Malaysian-born performer was cast in the coveted role on the strength of his personality and experience as the host of the BBC’s “The Travel Show.” Golding also produced and appeared in the Discovery Channel documentary “Surviving Borneo.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” also features good performances from a supporting cast of performers which includes pop star and rap artist Awkwafina as Rachel’s best friend and former college roommate, comedian and actor Ken Jeong as the wealthy father of Awkwafina’s character, and Lisa Lu as Nick’s grandmother and matriarch of the family. Michelle Yeoh, familiar for her roles in the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” and the Academy Award-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” from 2000, appears in the showcase role of Nick’s manipulative mother.
The dramatic emotional climax of “Crazy Rich Asians” occurs during a game of mahjong, played by Rachel and Eleanor with the solemn-faced gravity of the baccarat game between James Bond and his arch-nemesis Largo in 1965’s “Thunderball.” With its click-clack precision of colored playing tiles, the scene might contain considerably more significance to the mahjong enthusiasts in the audience, and concludes dramatically when one of the two opposing rivals for Nick’s affection snatches victory away from the other by revealing what appears to be the mahjong equivalent of a straight flush. If you’re able to guess which character prevails in the game, it might be an indication of the predictability of the rest of the picture.
Adapted from Kwan’s comic novel by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim and directed by Jon M. Chu, “Crazy Rich Asians” has been on the receiving end of some grouching by two sides of the discrimination debate. Some find fault with the picture for not including enough authentic Singapore-born Chinese in the principal cast, and others complain that the film doesn’t accurately portray Singapore’s colorful racial diversity, meaning that no roles were filled by the city’s Malay, Eurasian, and Indian populations.
But you can’t have everything. Some observers have noted that similar criticisms were made prior to the release of “The Godfather” by individuals of Italian-American descent, who eventually came around when the accolades and awards began to roll in. You might not notice the ethnic diversity problems in “Crazy Rich Asians,” though, so much as you come away with the revelation that Chinese families can be as goofy, eccentric, and unmanageable as anyone else’s. That’s probably the point.
The critics apparently don’t mind the diversity problems, either. Based on 144 reviews, “Crazy Rich Asians” has received an approval rating of 92% from the Rotten Tomatoes website, and an average score of 74% from Metacritic based on the reviews of 46 other critics. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the movie an average grade of A.
Originally projected to earn a up to $20 million during its opening weekend, estimates were raised to $30 million after advance screenings sold out at nearly all of the 354 theaters exhibiting the preview. Now playing at 3303 theaters across the United States, “Crazy Rich Asians” might just find itself exceeding expectations again.
Director Jon Chu and others have been quick to point out that the film is the first major American production since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 to feature a mostly Asian cast. Prior to the release of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Chu acknowledged that he’d be eager to return to direct a sequel if the first film was a success, a possibility which now seems likely. Kevin Kwan’s original novel spawned two sequels—“China Rich Girlfriend” and “Rich People Problems.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and adult language.