Monday, September 17, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians: A Review


I'm not one to rain on anyone's parade, so I go into Crazy Rich Asians with some sense of trepidation.  Why? Because the film is not particularly original.  In fact, in terms of plot, it is pretty much standard to the point of playing almost as parody.

However, it knows what it is, it has a delightful, pleasant manner to it and is a nice bit of fluff, so I genuinely cannot hold its self-awareness against it.

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at NYU, has been dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) for some time.  Both are obviously quite smitten with each other, but Nick is rather secretive about his family.  As such, Rachel is surprised when Nick invites her to go to his home in Singapore for his best friend Colin's (Chris Pang) wedding, where Nick will be best man.

This will be the perfect way for Rachel to meet Nick's parents, or at least his formidable mother, the elegant and powerful society doyenne Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).  Rachel, however, is puzzled over how Nick can afford a first-class section of the flight to Singapore.

It is only after arriving in Singapore and reuniting with her old college friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkawfina) that Rachel discovers that the Young Family is, in the words of Peik Lin not just 'rich' but 'crazy rich', having vast holdings in real estate and development.

At this point, I had a question that the film and those I've talked to about the film have not been able to give me an answer to: Rachel, an economics professor, was thoroughly unaware of the economic hold the Young Family had on the Singapore economy?

Image result for crazy rich asiansAs Rachel attempts to navigate the social world and whirl of high-society Singapore, with her wacky BFF in tow, she and Nick split up for their various bachelor/bachelorette parties.  The other girls give our American-Chinese the cold shoulder, down to leaving a dead fish and writing 'gold-digging bitch' in 'psycho-killer letters' as Rachel says.

Only the bride-to-be Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) and Astrid (Gemma Chan), Nick's cousin with her own marital problems, show Rachel kindness.  Also in her corner is Cousin Oliver (Nico Santos), the self-described 'pink sheep' of the extended Young family, who becomes fast friends with Peik Lin.

Nick is now struggling between taking his place in the Young Family unofficial Singapore monarchy and being with Rachel, the family expecting him to take his place in their reign over the island nation. He certainly feels the pull, given that the other potential heirs are to just about everyone's mind unsuitable.  Nick's two other male cousins, the Hong Kong-based social climber/insult machine Edison aka Eddie (Ronnie Chieng) and Taiwan-based film director Alistair (Remi Hii) essentially too wrapped up in themselves to lead.

Astrid of course can't, because she's a woman, odd for such a female-dominated clan as the Youngs, but there it is.

Rachel attempts to woo the Young family and show them her mettle. The showdown is at the wedding, where Rachel's smarts and casualness win over the haughty Princess Intan, a surprising event given Her Royal Highness is about the only woman in Singapore wealthier and more powerful than Eleanor or her sisters.  However, at the lavish wedding celebration Rachel's secret is revealed, a secret so secret even Rachel didn't know about it.  Ultimately though, like in all romantic comedies, things end happily, with Rachel now engaged to being the unofficial Princess of Singapore, with unofficial Queen Eleanor's tacit approval.

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Replace 'wealthy' with 'eccentric' and Crazy Rich Asians bears more than a striking similarity to You Can't Take It With You.  You have the wealthy family with the son, the 'poor' family with the daughter, a meeting betwixt them that goes horrifically wrong, the girl spurning the boy, the wealthy family having a change of heart and the couple reunited.

You can even argue that Crazy Rich Asians can also be a relation to of all things, the film Jumping the Broom. Again, we have a wealthy family and a poor family tied by potential marriage, with the added bonus that both films have secrets about parentage playing a role in the story.  The difference between Jumping the Broom and Crazy Rich Asians is that the bride, not the groom, came from the wealthy family.

Here is a test: replace 'Asian' with any other ethnicity/race (Indian, Hispanic, African, African-American, Arab, Jewish, Native American, even yes, Caucasian), and would it be called 'original'.  I would say not. 

There is a difference, however, between 'original' and 'entertaining'. 

I don't think anyone can seriously call the actual plot of Crazy Rich Asians "original".  I think we can call the film Crazy Rich Asians entertaining, if familiar. Perhaps its very familiarity is what makes it entertaining.  The film focuses on this lavish family, but in just about every family, people will find a potential mother-in-law who dislikes us, other potential relatives and friends who will help us, and the hope that true love will conquer all.

One positive aspect in Crazy Rich Asians is that despite being 'crazy rich', the Young family is mostly quite pleasant.  Eleanor and her sisters can have a Bible study and be perfectly accepting of the flamboyant Cousin Oliver.  There's a long scene where the Youngs are making dumplings together as a family, a very relatable scene in that most families have a custom or tradition that they enjoy or at least partake in to have continuity.

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You also have some wonderful performances.  Ramos all but steals the movie as Cousin Oliver (and I did wonder if Kevin Kwan, who wrote the novel, was making a pun).  It might have been a bit of a stereotype: the quippy, flamboyant gay man, but Ramos didn't make him a caricature.

Also, his quip about loving Rachel's dress, describing it as 'Disco Cleopatra', was highly amusing.  Curiously, while I found Awkawfina's Peik Li too broad and over-the-top, I figure this is how the character is supposed to be.  Ken Jeong, who has a small role as her father Mr. Goh, refers to his daughter as looking like 'an Asian Ellen', so we figure that Peik Li is not meant to be subtle.

I actually would not mind a buddy comedy with Peik Li and Cousin Oliver.

Astrid, a most fascinating character who out of the three main cousins has the most extended storyline (even if it is still a bit shortchanged), would make for an interesting spinoff film herself. Chan made Astrid into someone who didn't blink when told earrings could be bought 'at cost' of $1.4 million but who was also sad in her marriage to a man she loved but who felt a need to compete against her.

Perhaps this is one of Crazy Rich Asians' flaws.  It had so many stories and characters floating by that it soon became hard to keep track of them all.  Astrid had the most interesting story of the three potential heirs, leaving the crass Eddie with little to do and Alistair barely registering. Same goes for Colin's frenemy Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang), a boorish figure whose relationship with Colin seems inexplicable.

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As for the three principles, there is nothing that will dissuade me from my Michelle Yeoh love.  As Eleanor, she balances between being haughty and hurt, between the 'villainess' and the genuinely caring and protective mother. A raised eyebrow, Yeoh shows, is more powerful than a body blow. 

Wu is a delight at Rachel: strong yet vulnerable, with an ability to recite witty dialogue as if it were natural, a real heroine and someone you root for.

Golding, best known as a television show host, does well as the hunky Nick.  We get our obligatory shirtless shots of Golding and Pierre Png as Astrid's husband, and while I sometimes sensed some discomfort and hesitation from Golding, I think he acquitted himself well.

Sometimes the opulence becomes almost vulgar, not that the Goh family didn't come across as nouveau-riche horrors.  However, Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli's screenplay gave them nice touches and a chance to mock stereotypes, such as when Mr. Goh advised his two youngest daughters to eat because 'there are poor children starving in America'.

Crazy Rich Asians, under the strong direction of John M. Chu, sometimes indulges in the consumerism and gaudiness of its trappings. It feels longer than its two-hour running time, but on the whole it is a very nice film that does not reinvent the wheel but has a lot of heart and humor in its familiar story.


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