The intoxicating and hilarious Crazy Rich Asians is an instant rom-com classic
If there's currently a genre in Hollywood that could be considered a bit stale, it's the romantic comedy. While these sorts of films are practically guaranteed to deliver the box office goods, they have mostly floundered in the wake of the raunchier, edgier works ushered in by the mid-2000's comedy boom that was set off by the likes of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Superbad. Last year's superb The Big Sick broke the trend as a critical darling, but even that teetered more on the dramatic side. Outside of that film, virtually nothing of note has emerged from the genre in years.
Swooping in to bring new life to the genre is the fresh, fun, and lavish Crazy Rich Asians, director Jon M. Chu's (Now You See Me 2) adaptation of the smash hit novel of the same name by author Kevin Kwan. The film follows NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, Fresh Off the Boat) as she is plunged into the extravagant world of her boyfriend Nick Young's (Henry Golding) rich and powerful family, whose status as the proverbial royals of Singaporean high society was unknown to Rachel until now. Rachel is quickly engaged in a battle of wills with the Youngs, spearheaded by the ferocious Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who see her modest background as unworthy of their son's affections.
If this sounds like a take on the traditional insane family plot so often seen in the genre, that's because it is. The film doesn't exactly re-invent the romantic comedy wheel, and you can pretty much predict nearly every plot point well ahead of their reveals, but what it makes so fresh is the unapologetic celebration of culture that is contained within. The extravagance of the Youngs' lifestyle allows for Chu and company to go wild with their explorations of East Asian culture, highlighting everything from cuisine to societal norms in extraordinary fashion. The production design here is utterly breathtaking, sweeping the audience off their feet with Singapore's beauty just as swiftly as it does with Rachel herself. Not to mention the fact that cinematographer Vanja Cernjul (Violet & Daisy) cashes in on not only the beauty of the locations, but also on the excellent work currently being done in the realm of food cinematography. Some of the best work behind the camera happening right now is going on the sorts of food documentaries popularized by Netflix, and Chu and Cernjul smartly elevate that work to the big screen with delicious effect. Food is often a bridge for culture, so the care for it here is no mistake. Don't go into this film hungry.
The true highlight here however is the cast, which is the first predominantly Asian ensemble in a Hollywood film since 1993's The Joy Luck Club and an absolutely magnetic group of actors. Wu cements herself here as one of the industry's most watchable performers, bringing a wit and grace to the role that makes Rachel feel more human than what the fish-out-of-water trope usually allows. Similarly, Yeoh injects depth into the "tiger mom" stereotype, elevating it into a razor sharp but also sympathetic portrayal of a fierce woman who holds years of pain and regret close to the chest. Gemma Chan (Exam) also turns in probably the sweetest role of the film as Astrid, Nick's extravagant but personable cousin who becomes Rachel's rock in the family. Her subplot, which explores marital troubles with her much poorer husband Michael (Pierre Png), has the most audience-pleasing dramatic moments of the film and gives the film some of its teeth.
The standout, however, is the riotous Awkwafina (Ocean's 8), who stars as Rachel's college roommate Peik Lin Goh, an oddball whose own wealth pales in comparison to the much more powerful Youngs. Awkwafina provides the same sort of manic sidekick energy that Rhys Ifans popularized in the rom-com classic Notting Hill, delivering the biggest laughs of the film and serving as a charmingly quirky foil to the more modest Rachel. Between this role and her performance in Ocean's 8 earlier this year, the YouTube rapper turned comedic tour de force is having a career year.
All the performances come together to tell a story about cultural differences that holds a surprising amount of nuance despite the film's breezy nature. The clash between Rachel and Eleanor (which culminates in one of the year's best scenes, a spicy confrontation that takes place over a game of Mahjong) allows for Chu and screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli to explore the sometimes cold lengths one will go to in order to protect family and heritage. This sets up a sharp commentary on the dichotomy between the steely determination of the Youngs' rise to the power and the less successful but more passionate choices of Rachel, one which in turn exposes deeper conversations about gender and societal roles in Asian culture.
Crazy Rich Asians is ultimately about self-love, and the admiration for your culture that comes with that. It's not perfect of course, with Golding's Nick being a little too perfect and the film's celebration of wealth coming off as a bit problematic at times, but to see an Asian cast so cheerfully and confidently tackle this romantic comedy road-map is undeniably intoxicating. The film is special because it's so unashamed of being itself, and that's a quality we should all celebrate.