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CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) review

August 30, 2018

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written by: Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim (screenplay) & Kevin Kwan (story)
produced by: Nina Jacobson, John Penotti and Brad Simpson
directed by: John Chu
rated: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and language)
runtime: 120 min.
U.S. release date: August 3, 2018

 

“Crazy Rich Asians” is a fun, comedic peek into the conspicuous consumption habits of Asia’s super wealthy, jetting from private-island bachelorette parties to palatial estates, but it also centers on the dynamics of growing up in one culture and then living in another. The movie takes a look at an older generation’s expectations against the values and beliefs of the next. The film’s themes seem to be resonating with audiences as “Crazy Rich Asians” dominated its first two weekends at the box office with $84 million in global ticket sales. And it goes into the Labor Day weekend with a good chance at retaining its top spot at the box office.

Every interview, every review of the movie is quick to point out that “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first major film to feature an all-Asian cast in 25 years, so there are tiger mom-like expectations that “Crazy Rich Asians” will break through Hollywood’s bamboo ceiling.

 

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While I understand the significance of this film to so many Asians, I am more interested in whether the movie just tells a story well. It does an above average job, but “Crazy Rich Asians” isn’t a rom-com great. I may get viciously trolled for writing this, but the box office numbers reflect the excitement over Asian representation more than it indicates that this is the best romantic comedy to come along in years. The romance is cute but not particularly electric. The barriers that could thwart the happy couple never feel like threats authentic enough to doom a romance.

When my parents got married in America in 1965, I’m sure most people saw a young Asian couple starting their lives together. My parents are Chinese, so by appearances alone, they look like a matched pair.

In reality, my parents had a surprising number of cultural and background differences to reconcile over the years coming from different Asian countries and different socioeconomic backgrounds. My mother grew up in a well-off family in Hong Kong, while my father came from a financially humble home in Singapore. My Mom arrived in the United States to attend college, open, even eager to assimilate to her new country. My Dad was more invested in retaining his cultural identity among the ang mohs (Caucasians).

 

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Millennials and others likely view these differences as superficial at best: Love should not be bound by things like race or national origins or socioeconomic differences. Yet expectations around love or family expressed differently via cultural backgrounds do require negotiation and compromises. These are love’s obstacles in Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel-turned-romantic-comedy, where Singaporean-born Nick Young (Henry Golding) brings his Chinese American girlfriend, Rachel (Constance Wu) home to meet his crazy rich family.

More specifically, Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), is the couple’s obstacle to a happily-ever-after. From Eleanor’s perspective, there are those who are brought up in Asian countries and then there are the so-called “bananas”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside—who look Chinese but hold Western attitudes and values. Rachel, Eleanor says, will never understand or grasp the values of Nick’s family, and with her background, she will “never be enough” for Nick.

In adapting Kwan’s novel, screenwriters Peter Chiarelli (“The Proposal”) and Adele Lim (Fox’s “Lethal Weapon”), along with director Jon M. Chu (“Jem and the Holograms” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”), made good choices in dropping storylines from the book that would have been too complicated to include in a two-hour movie and instead chose to deviate from the book as necessary. There’s also a conscious choice to offer a story about strong female characters who make the decisions and move the narrative along at their behest. But in their attempts to break stereotypes of Asian females as docile and submissive, they ended up rendering the male characters bland and one-dimensional…or missing altogether (as is the case with Nick’s father, who was in the book, yet simply absent from the movie).

And unlike so many other heroines of romantic comedies who are often portrayed as neurotic (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) or obsessive control freaks who focus on their careers to avoid personal involvements (“27 Dresses,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” and “When in Rome”), Kwan’s heroine Rachel, played by Wu (mainly known for ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat”), is normal and well-adjusted and comfortable with herself. It’s a unique heroine for the rom-com genre, but Wu’s acting felt a bit flat at times with facial expressions that didn’t seem to match a situation. Rachel’s best friend, Peik Lin, played by actress and comedian Awkwafina, owned most of the film’s funnier moments.

 

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Former model and television host Golding, did a good job as Nick in his first acting role, but his character seemed to lack agency in the film. Nick’s character is earnest and nice but lacks personality and witty charisma. And let’s be honest, wit is one of the sexiest attributes on a man. Instead, “Crazy Rich Asians” threw in a couple of shirtless scenes of Asian males to communicate to audiences that Asian men are sexy and desirable.

Without providing any spoilers to the film, the most deftly handled scene was the mahjong game between Rachel and Eleanor. (It’s a scene created specifically for the movie.)

American audiences are used to watching poker games with an understanding of the stakes and winning hands, but it’s an interesting twist to present them with a game most don’t know the rules to and let them decipher what’s being communicated both by the conversation between Rachel and Eleanor as well as the action of the game. (You can have the mahjong scene explained to you here).

New immigrants are used to spending their time deciphering what’s happening in a conversation, trying to listen to the words being spoken as well as pick up the subtexts of a conversation happening in a culture they are unfamiliar with. Throughout this movie, and especially in this mahjong scene, “Crazy Rich Asians” lets non-Asian viewers be on the outside for a change, to guess at the meaning and symbols and the cultural nuances playing out in front of them.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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