Crazy Rich Asians is a delightful and decadent romantic romp

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Let’s get one thing straight. Crazy Rich Asians is not an Asian romantic comedy. It’s a romantic comedy that happens to star Asians. That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but it’s a vitally important aspect to consider when watching this film.

I won’t be the first to remind people that Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club to star a primarily Asian-American cast. Nor will I be the first to mention the immense pressure that the film is under to be a box office success. The cultural significance of this film far outweighs most movies in a genre that gets the dismissive nickname of “rom-com.” Asians across the United States have rallied around the #goldopen hashtag, buying out theaters and watching the film multiple times in the hopes that a big box office result will lead to more Asian-American stories in Hollywood.

But no amount of Asian solidarity would be enough to save a film if it isn’t actually good. Which is why I am thrilled that Crazy Rich Asians is not only good, but the new gold standard for modern romantic comedies.

Directed by Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) and based on Kevin Kwan’s international bestselling book of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians follows the story of an NYU professor, Rachel Chu (a captivating Constance Wu), and her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding). When the pair goes to Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding, Rachel discovers Nick’s big secret. Not only is he rich. He is well…CRAZY rich! But as a “poor immigrant” American, Rachel immediately draws the ire of nearly all of Nick’s family, chief among them, Nick’s prim and proper mother, Eleanor (expertly portrayed by Michelle Yeoh).

Thankfully, Rachel does have a few allies on her side, including Nick’s cousins, Astrid (the utterly beautiful Gemma Chan) and Oliver (Nico Santos), as well as her old college roommate Peik Lin (played by an absolutely scene-stealing Awkwafina). Can Rachel overcome the petty sniping and backstabbing that come along with Nick’s family? Will true love prevail? I won’t spoil the answers here, but, well this is a rom-com after all.

Chu moves the film briskly from scene to scene, highlighting both the excesses of the Asian super-rich, as well as the simpler pleasures of Asian culture. There are bachelor parties set on supertankers in international waters, as well as inexpensive food stall lunches at a Singaporean Hawker Centre. Chu also has an uncanny pulse on the way Asian’s disseminate information, which he exaggerates to great effect in an early scene in the film. A single cell phone photo of Nick and Rachel turns into a countrywide web stalking effort to find out “Who is Rachel Chu,” ultimately resulting in a phone call from Eleanor to Nick, all in the span of a few minutes.

Supporting characters representing a who’s who of Asian Hollywood round out the cast. Ronny Chieng (The Daily Show) plays Eddie, another of Nick’s many cousins. Jimmy O. Yang (Silicon Valley) plays Bernard Tai, Nick’s former classmate who shows what happens when you mix pure unfettered Asian id with an unlimited trust fund. Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina) plays Araminta Lee, the fiancée of Nick’s best friend, Colin (Chris Pang). Ken Jeong even shows up in an extended cameo as Peik Lin’s eccentric father. Seeing so many familiar Asian faces is part of what makes the film so unique. But it does tend to spread the wealth a bit thin in terms of actual screen time. This extends to the secondary storyline around the crumbling marriage of Astrid and her tech entrepreneur husband, Michael (Pierre Png). Their story is a relatively important part of the novels but feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped here.

Fortunately, this does not detract from the delicious triangle between Rachel, Nick, and Eleanor. Wu is exceedingly charming as Rachel, highlighting the character’s pragmatism in the face of this immense wealth. Rather than being a helpless female needing rescue by an almost literal Prince Charming, Wu demonstrates a steely determination and independence that only grows as the film progresses. Golding shines in his first starring role, evincing an effortless magnetism that makes you truly believe that he is both rich and famous. And Yeoh absolutely nails the part of the doting, yet strict Asian matriarch, masking her immense love for her son behind a façade of Asian propriety. Every withering comment she makes about Rachel’s family and career ambitions are deployed with a subtle grace, even as she ever so gently slips the verbal knife into Rachel’s back.

The film hits many of the classic rom-com beats. A “getting ready” montage that is the spiritual successor to Pretty Woman. A She’s All That moment where the ugly duckling (as if you could ever call Wu ugly) is revealed to be a swan. And of course, there’s the “grand romantic gesture” that I won’t spoil here. All of which serve to remind us that, ultimately, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy. But most importantly, it highlights Asians as multi-dimensional characters that are capable of being conniving and status seeking, but also capable of being funny, romantic, charming, and compassionate. And there’s nary a Kung-Fu kick to be seen.

Which brings me back to my original point. As important as it was to have a film with an entirely Asian cast, it was more important that Crazy Rich Asians shine on its own merits. And on that score, it most certainly does. With any luck, that means we won’t have to wait another 25 years for the next one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 atoms

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