Here to help round out the summer movie season is a surprising contender: “Crazy Rich Asians,” directed by Jon M. Chu (the director of a not-so-promising catalogue of box office duds including “Now You See Me 2,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” and “Jem and the Holograms”), brings the story of a popular novel by Kevin Kwan to the big screen.
For the last several years, the dog days of summer have seen a slew of perfunctory action flicks— “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” and “Logan Lucky” last year, “War Dogs” and “Ben-Hur” the year before. This lull in the blockbuster calendar, normally stretching from the deep, dry days of mid-August until September, isn’t widely known to produce hits as consistently as the earlier summer months.
Besides taking a chance on an inconsistent director (to put it kindly, he doesn’t have a vast arsenal of hits on his resume) and a risky release date, “Crazy Rich Asians” ventures to stand out as a romantic comedy, a genre that not only often suffers from a less-than-prestigious reputation, but hasn’t produced a steady stream of successful films since its early-2000s heyday. It's been a while since films like “10 Things I Hate About You,” “13 Going on 30,” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” were the shoe-in success stories.
Needless to say, the critical and commercial viability of a film such as “Crazy Rich Asians” wasn’t rock solid—and if those risks weren’t enough, the film boasts a primarily Asian cast set in modern times, a noble assertion for diversity but the first such declaration since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, according to the New York Times.
“Crazy Rich Asians” tells the story of a young Asian-American college professor, Rachel (Constance Wu) who travels with her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding) to Singapore to meet his family, which she comes to discover is the one of the richest in the entire country.
An opulent state of mind is entrenched in virtually every frame of the movie, which succeeds in inspiring awe with its luxurious sets, characters and situations (except for a few moments when its abundance inches toward laughable). Nonetheless, this is a visually beautiful and intricate film. Every house, every party, every costume purports to strike viewers with a kind of enriched, incredulous wonder—it is as if the filmmakers, even the characters themselves, relish the times they force us to ask ourselves, “Do people really live like that?”
Importantly, the movie is genuinely funny. Hollywood newcomer Awkwafina, who became a standout in another successful summer, “Oceans 8”, back in June, again showcases her excellent onscreen persona, comedic timing and memorable delivery. She provides some of the movie’s funniest bits, particularly at one of movie’s early parties, taking place at Nick’s grandmother’s house.
Affluence aside, fortunately, the movie doesn’t rely solely on wowing its audience with shallow gimmicks, although that is a seemingly hefty hunk of its agenda.
The story, while relatively standard in terms of plot points and character development, provides for a fast-paced and buoyant romp across the city, allowing every character of the sizable cast to enjoy a healthy amount of screen time. Other standouts from the cast include Michelle Yeoh, who plays Nick’s mother, and Gemma Chan, who plays his cousin.
In addition to a fun-centered plot and a few interesting (if not entirely relevant) B-storylines, the movie raises several bits of insightful commentary relating to identity and belonging, particularly within a cultural and dynastic context. It becomes easy to relate to Wu’s character, who, although far from the most boisterous character on screen, is often the most memorable because she represents the fish-out-of-water member of the group who is trying to embrace a climate which is foreign to her, both figuratively and literally. Watching Rachel fight to stay afloat and prove her worth to Nick’s disapproving mother, while simultaneously convincing herself of such worthiness, is a rewarding, if not incredibly nuanced, journey to travel.
“Crazy Rich Asians” thankfully satisfies the needs of a well-made, enjoyable film—if it did not, conversations around its other accomplishments would be instantly diminished. Those triumphs, supplemented by a healthy response from critics and three majorly successful weeks at the box office (it’s sitting at more than $145 million thus far), do much to further establish the notion that mainstream cinema can be both entertaining and culturally significant. It may not be groundbreaking in every way, but its innovation lies in its willingness to take risks (on a director, a genre, a release date and a diversity move that were anything but definite shoe-ins for success), and furthermore its aptitude in proving that people are willing to pay for a ticket to reward the film for doing so.