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'Crazy Rich Asians' Is a Success Story That Hollywood Shouldn't Miss

From left: Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu bring a popular book trilogy to the big screen in "Crazy Rich Asians." (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC)

So much of Hollywood’s meager push for diversity has resulted in people of color making bad movies to match those made by white men for decades. The reason is it’s hard to make good movies, no matter your color. It’s a numbers game. Make enough movies and some are bound to be good. The problem is only white men have been given the chance to make enough movies for that ratio to tilt in their favor.

Fortunately, Jon Chu, director of tent-pole movies like “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and a pair of Justin Bieber documentaries, was given the chance to adapt “Crazy Rich Asians.” Even more fortunate was casting the effervescent Constance Wu as his lead. Wu plays Rachel Chu, an NYU economics professor who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to his hometown of Singapore for his best friend’s wedding.

The action begins when Young and Chu are photographed by a Malaysian influencer and, in a sprightly montage, the moment goes viral on social media, causing every nubile in the South Pacific to ask, “Who is Rachel Chu?” For the audience, the more pressing question would be: Who is Nick Young? He’s heir to a global hotel empire, that’s who, making him the region’s most eligible bachelor.

Nick had until then kept his secret from Rachel because he wanted her to like him for who he was and not for his money. The other key detail from his background that he’s been shielding her from is his mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who oversees the family business and wants her number-one son to return to Singapore and marry a proper Chinese woman, not one raised in the U.S.

Americans are given to pursuing their passions instead of putting family first, Eleanor admonishes her Nick when it becomes clear he plans to marry Rachel. It’s a familiar conflict in movies with ethnic characters, but director Chu and his writing team of Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim imbue it with an emotional veracity that elevates it from hackneyed to heartfelt.

A rowdy bachelor party for the boys, and a corresponding soirée for the girls, are shown in scenes that seem de rigueur in a rom-com. But the tonally miscued bloody revenge attack on Rachel that follows isn’t. It’s a turning point that starts her thinking maybe her million-dollar bachelor isn’t worth all the trouble.

The good news is her old New York girlfriend, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), has her back. The Queens-born rapper made her mark earlier this year in “Ocean’s 8,” but here she comes close to stealing every scene she’s in, if not for the even zanier antics of Ken Jeong, who plays her father.

Ronny Chieng, one of the most talented correspondents from “The Daily Show,” is wasted here as obnoxious cousin Edison Cheng. And British actress Gemma Chan (Mia on AMC’s “Humans”), as cousin Astrid, has a striking screen presence but limited emotional range as the betrayed wife in a subplot that drags.

As shrewd as she is gracious, Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Young is used to ordering the world around her, especially when it comes to her family. And she will relinquish nothing to a girl whom she perceives as a flighty gold digger from Manhattan. A formidable action star from the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, Yeoh is known to most Western audiences from the Oscar-winning kung fu classic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Needless to say, she conveys the gravity and dignity of her deep filmography with incidental ease.

After a strenuous search, Henry Golding was cast as Nick Young based on a Malaysian travel show he hosted. He now has two more movies, “A Simple Favor,” with Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, and “Monsoon,” coming out later this year. His character here is mainly a cipher, a depository for the dreams of lovelorn women. Given so little to do, it’s difficult to gauge his acting range, but suffice to say he’s an attractive guy with an easygoing warmth that complements Wu’s conflicted Rachel.

More than anyone, Constance Wu occupies the center of “Crazy Rich Asians.” There, amid a flurry of beauties in designer dresses, fit and handsome men, outlandish excess all around her, she holds the film together. Best known for the ABC sitcom, “Fresh Off the Boat,” on which she plays tiger mom Jessica, a broader comedic version of Eleanor Young, in this film Wu effortlessly seems to drive the story despite the fact that she’s mostly a passive protagonist, struggling with her inability to do right in anyone’s eyes. Paramount is Wu’s ability to convey the everywoman quality of classic screwball heroines while easily switching to bombshell mode, as she does in a baby-blue dress during the climactic sequence.

With a history of directing dance movies including “Step Up 2: The Streets” and its sequel, as well as his work with Justin Bieber, director Chu has developed a keen understanding of rhythm. He uses that sensibility in “Crazy Rich Asians,” maintaining tight comedic timing and a zippy pace, assisted by an ear-catching score that mixes classic jazz tunes sung in Mandarin with composer Brian Tyler’s more pedestrian strains.

Chu and his writers find a delicate cultural balance that makes his characters universally familiar without forsaking Asian aspects of the story. What they give us is a cast of characters, sober, nutty, crass, classy, discreet and ostentatious, a panoply of Asian types rarely expressed on film—so rare that it’s been 25 years since the last all-Asian cast directed by a Chinese-American came to theaters in 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.” That film, budgeted at $11 million, earned $33 million at the domestic box office for Disney’s Hollywood Pictures. Box-office tracking has “Crazy Rich Asians” likely enjoying the strongest opening for a romantic comedy this year, disproving, yet again, conventional Hollywood thinking.

Jordan Riefe
Contributor
After studying Mandarin in post-Mao China, Jordan got into the film business as a camera assistant working with directors like...
Jordan Riefe

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