A couple of the reasons “Crazy Rich Asians” works well as a contemporary romantic comedy are that it touches on universal themes about the differences between “normal” people and the very rich — the “crazy rich” — and it tells a familiar, warts and all love story that will be easily understood and comfortable to watch for all audiences.
One of the reasons it doesn’t work well is that, aside from the numerous splashy displays of wealth, audiences have seen this story before. Yes, it has an all-Asian cast, and isn’t plagued by yet another warts and all love story featuring the usual white suspects, but in the end, it’s just too familiar, too comfortable.
Based on the hit 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan (so successful it spawned two sequels), the film maintains the 500-page book’s spirit, but if you’re a fan, don’t go expecting to see what you had read and pictured. As always, when adapting for the screen, myriad changes, of the cutting down or cutting out sort, are made. A lot of it made it to the movie, but a lot of it didn’t.
Still, except for some misplaced dramatic moments (in both the book and the film), this is a breezy, fun exercise. Rachel and Nick (Constance Wu and Henry Golding) have been dating for over a year in New York City. He suggests that when he heads back to his native Singapore to be best man at his friend’s wedding, Rachel should come along. Since she’s a college professor and has the summer off, they could make it an extended getaway. Sure, she says.
The gimmick of the story is that Nick’s family is wealthy — like the one percent wealthy. But since moving to the States he’s always kept a low profile about that, and Rachel has no clue. Her first one doesn’t come till they board their plane, and she gets to experience ultra-first class.
Up to this point the film plays out like a Rock Hudson-Doris Day romp from the 1960s. But its simplicity and charm take a turn into complications and even a bit of unsavory behavior when the plane lands in Singapore, which signals an introduction to a lengthy list of characters: Friends and relatives, some nice and some not.
First up are Nick’s soon-to-be-married pals Colin and Araminta (Chris Pang and Sonoya Mizuno). They’re very nice, though Araminta has been cleaned up some from the book. Nick has numerous cousins, my favorite of which is fashion icon and good-hearted Astrid (Gemma Chan), who’s married to the shifty eyed Michael (Pierre Png). Among the friends, or maybe call him a friend of a friend, is the churlish and spoiled Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang) and there’s Rachel’s old school chum Peik Lin (Awkwafina, playing it all in scene-stealing mode). Of most consequence is Nick’s classy mom Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who upon meeting Rachel, assumes an off-putting coolness toward her.
Remember, these people are crazy rich. They’ve all been affected by their wealth, but while some of them like and accept Rachel, others see her as a commoner or, in some cases, a gold digger. That part, of course, is where the script’s mood-breaking drama and brief brush with emotional turmoil springs from. But the film remains mostly on the light side of things. It’s definitely fun to see lavish spending of money in clothing and jewelry shops, and on both bachelor and bachelorette parties. Even the non-money-related scenes, one about making dumplings from scratch, another about the competitive nature of mah-jongg, are immensely enjoyable.
Because the film sticks closely to romantic comedy formula, no one is going to be surprised about how it ends. But it’s hard not to think that it would have achieved a different level of satisfaction if the story had focused on the more interesting Astrid and Michael than the comparatively drab Rachel and Nick. The second book in the trilogy — “China Rich Girlfriend” — gives Astrid a much larger role. If this film does well, perhaps we’ll have a chance to see that story.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“Crazy Rich Asians”
Written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lin; directed by Jon M. Chu
With Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh