While unabashedly a rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians repeatedly digresses into a food travelogue, director Jon M. Chu following the making of exotic cuisine like he’s been overtaken by the spirit of Anthony Bourdain. By design or not, the film itself fits well among the featured dishes. It’s a steamed dumpling of a romantic-comedy, based on a simple, age-old tradition that’s been refined as much as it’s been done wrong; but when done right, it’s just a little mushy, a touch tacky, and widely enjoyable at a base level (especially with some alcohol). Sticking to the simple recipe, Chu mostly gets it right and ultimately ends up with a cute little wonton that’s a tad under-seasoned and a bit overstuffed. But damn if it’s not a surprisingly satisfying meal pretty enough to be Instagrammed.
Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, a rare, refreshing rom-com lead who has aspirations beyond the dying publishing industry. She’s a professor of economics and game theory at NYU, and as a beautiful and successful woman, she has an aptly hunky boyfriend in Nick Young (Henry Golding), who we learn totally works out through several gratuitous shirtless scenes. With prompt efficiency, we also learn right along with Rachel that Nick is an almost literal prince charming: his family is insanely wealthy old money of Singapore, and they border on royalty there. When he asks her to come to his best friend’s wedding back in his homeland, she accepts, putting her face-to-face with his mother: Michelle Yeoh, a matriarch played as a borderline mob boss. Mom, of course, does not approve of this Americanized woman who comes from nothing, and all the combined drama and comedy of meet-the-family and Cinderella stories plays out with results that are both predictable and, in small touches, unexpectedly subversive.
True to its name, Crazy Rich Asians is rarely cheap in more ways than one. Its fish-out-of-water, Queens-born girl meets wildly-wealthy boy’s family story is fairly boilerplate, but it almost never gives in to the most eye-rolling trappings of its niche. After a trailer that stressed a moment when Rachel embarrassingly tried to drink from a hand-washing dish (this ends up being utterly inconsequential), the film almost begs you to expect further bumbling and surely more misunderstandings. Yet there’s never a scene where she topples a tower of champagne flutes; there are never the language colloquialisms that lead to her having a Chinese conversation that means something hilariously different locally; and there’s never the part where you scream at the screen because the leads aren’t having the basic human communication that would so easily resolve their issue. This thing plays it fair with its gags, tending toward social and cultural satire over the well-worn pratfalls and contrived spats.
At the same time, the humanity so many characters are given is also what makes Crazy Rich Asians so tedious in fits and bursts. Too many conversations are filled with either strained exposition or the kind of casually overheard dialogue that says, “I’m a nice enough person but not particularly well-defined nor interesting.” The film leaves you liking the leads but not exactly wanting to see more of them. Honestly, Crazy Rich Asians would play largely as a family drama were it not for some standout comic bit performances from Ocean’s 8‘s Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang (leaning even further into the asshole-ishness he’s dipped into on Silicon Valley to be the most grotesque rich turd in the whole thing), and Ronny Chieng (channeling Adam Scott in Step Brothers as an unbearable brother obsessed with his family’s photo poses achieving “optimal angles”).
More than all that, though, the lack of cheapness comes across in the sumptuous visuals. Despite working with a standard rom-com budget of about $30 million, Chu really manages to capture the opulence of these people and this world, culminating in a wedding ceremony so remarkably beautiful you’ll wish you could crash it. Chu made his name working in flashy glitz, directing two Step Ups, two Justin Bieber concert films, Now You See Me 2, and the Jem and the Holograms movie; while those are some pretty poor films, his experience in razzle-dazzle nonetheless shows in several charming, jazzy sequences, often playfully set to Chinese covers of American pop hits. (An early scene charting a digital gossip chain does the near impossible in making a texting and social media-based montage engaging.)
In the end, Crazy Rich Asians is neither a groundbreaking triumph nor a flop—and that’s kind of the point. Chu and writers Peter Chiarelli and Adel Lim don’t even try deviating from the expected rom-com beats, bordering on pastiche as they push through a “Material Girl” cover-driven makeover montage and into a finale so clichéd it belongs in They Came Together (hint: it involves an airplane). Their intention was (hopefully) not to re-invent the genre but finally lend its simple pleasures to an audience that doesn’t identify so readily with Katherine Heigl, and they largely succeeded. Beyond featuring an all-Asian cast, Crazy Rich Asians comes crammed with truths about the Asian and distinctly Asian-American experience big and small—from obvious nods, like a mahjong move taking the place of the too-often-used “checkmate” metaphor, to more subtle winks to things like, say, lactose intolerance (near 100% for much of Asia, so now you know). But, clearly recognizing the rareness of their chance to say what few mainstream Hollywood films will let them, the impassioned filmmakers try to say absolutely everything; long, wordy scenes are often desperate for edits, and the result is one of the few romantic-comedies to top out over two hours. It’s some unfortunate bloating that can’t be blamed on milk.
Crazy Rich Asians
Director: Jon M. Chu
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 135 minutes
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Lisa Lu