Love and its complicated dynamics have been largely out of style in filmmaking since the witty, mature heyday of Norah Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally”) and Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral.”) But now it’s revived by “Crazy Rich Asians,” a take on the moribund genre that’s leaps and bounds above anything we’ve seen for years.
At long last there’s an antidote to those cringe-worthy “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades” fiascos. Here’s a love story with genuine stakes, grown-up characters and a great sense of fun. Having radically exceeded my hard-hearted expectations, it should leave romcom fans feeling as delighted as children on Christmas day.
Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestseller, the film is a fantasy tour of high society Singaporean style. Rachel Chu (fetching Constance Wu of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat”), a young economics professor at NYU, who has never been east of Queens, takes her first trip to Asia as she accompanies her boyfriend back to his home, where he’ll serve as best man at his friend’s wedding.
Despite her expertise in finance, she has never detected that modest, adorable Nick Young (Henry Golding) has been concealing an important fact from her: His family is 12 times richer than God. Once inside his extravagant Pacific Rim never-never land of high fashion, towering wealth, spoiled socialites, debauched scions and marriage-threatening scandals, Nick’s sincere devotion may come at a cost Rachel can’t afford.
“Crazy Rich Asians” gives us a smooth, polished take on Cinderella in a context looking at cultural clashes that reach beyond ethnic similarities. Rachel, a first generation Chinese-American, speaks Cantonese as well as anyone in Nick’s family, and most of the all-Asian cast speaks a plummy Queen’s English from their days in elite British boarding schools.
But there’s much that Rachel doesn’t have in common with Nick’s kin, who follow ancient codes of duty to family, not all-American personal fulfillment and pursuit of happiness. As much as she tries to respect them, their traditions feel artificial, turning her relationship with Nick into an East-West snarl-up.
It’s told with a good deal of humor in the mix. As word of Rachel’s place in Nick’s heart spreads over the Internet, there’s a great visual mosaic of the gossip spreading like an unending tide. Rachel begins firing culture clash jokes as aoon as their flight arrives. “I can’t believe this airport has a butterfly garden and a movie theater. JFK is just salmonella and despair!” And as Rachel’s strange old college roommate and local tag-along, Awkwafina is a one-woman riot.
In this universe, the men are largely eye candy to be shown shirtless whenever possible, or comic relief, with Ken Jeong hamming it up and Nico Santos going wry, dry and very out. As in a real-life wedding, the power roles go to the women. They’re all written with special care and given the camera time they need to make their characters well detailed.
Wu, who seems inherently likable, covers a lot of feelings without overselling. When she overhears some rich glamor girls snip at her natural beauty — Asia is the world capital of plastic surgery — her rueful look says everything. They regard her as an immigrant gold digger and when they threaten her with an act of bedroom belligerence straight out of “The Godfather,” Wu delivers precisely the right response. She creates a classic good girl in a poised, self-assertive and vulnerable way that doesn’t feel cliched.
Michelle Yeoh is a treasure as Nick’s chilly, regal mother, Eleanor. What a rich character she is, dominant yet detached and high-minded, untainted by human pettiness. A mega-rich Hong Kong film superstar for decades, Yeoh handles the part with the serene confidence of a born empress.
Eleanor rarely expresses criticism; implication is so much more elegant. She examines Rachel like a mildly bothersome mosquito to be waved away, too unimportant to swat. She’s certain that Rachel lacks the refined cultural sensitivity needed to enter her lofty circle, let alone join her family. She expects Rachel to fly back to vulgar New York City, and Nick to return to his proper home with mother.
With a minor glance or a subtle acoustic change in her voice she’s as deadly as a torpedo. And yet she can be kind and inclusive as she tries to send Rachel packing, inviting her to make bao dumplings and chat about babies. Eleanor is difficult, but no Medusa.
The film has won a good deal of attention as the first U.S. studio feature with an entirely Asian ensemble since “The Joy Luck Club” was released a quarter century before. It’s great to see a perpetually under-represented group claim the spotlight stereotype-free, and the success of hits like “Black Panther” surely prove that audiences are eager for more diversity in their familiar genres.
But the film’s strongest selling point isn’t that, or its dressed-to-kill costuming or its use of chic locations and appetite-exciting food porn. Its benefit is filtering all those elements through an old Capulets and Montagues storyline and creating a deft, intelligent charmer as irresistibly fizzy as the champagne its characters quaff ‘round the clock. It gives romance the royal treatment.
I would be delighted if director Jon M. Chu’s next project was a comedy drama about the wedding of Meghan and Prince Harry.