A film review by Craig J. Koban December 19, 2018


2018, PG-13, 120 mins.


Constance Wu as Rachel Chu  /  Henry Golding as Nick Young  /  Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young  /  Gemma Chan as Astrid Leong  /  Sonoya Mizuno as Araminta Lee  /  Awkwafina as Goh Peik Lin  /  Chris Pang as Colin Khoo  /  Harry Shum Jr. as Charlie Wu  /  Remy Hii as Allistair Chieng  /  Tan Kheng Hua as Kerry Chu

Directed by Jon M. Chu  /  Written by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, based on the book by Kevin Kwan




Something dawned on me just after I finished screening CRAZY RICH ASIANS.  

This new romcom is paradoxically a groundbreaking and important film in the annals of Hollywood history...that also happens to be just as achingly conventional and clichéd as just about any other dime-a-dozen romcom out there that preceded it.  

Now, hear me out.  

On a positive, CRAZY RICH ASIANS - based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan - is most definitely an important film in the sense that it represents the very first modern Hollywood film featuring an all-Asian cast and an Asian-American lead in nearly a quarter of a century (the last film to achieve such an honor is 1993's THE JOY LUCK CLUB).  This really matters and is significant, seeing as Hollywood has had a very dubious track record of accurately and consistently giving Asian performers proper roles to harness their talents, not to mention that Asians have been given the very short end of the stick when it comes to how they're presented in mainstream films.  So, the fact that CRAZY RICH ASIANS has all of its roles - both leading and supporting - being played by Asians is hard to ignore.   

This leads me to the negative, which is the way that CRAZY RICH ASIANS drops its Asian cast and crew in a story that feels like it's lazily regurgitating an awful lot of stale troupes and conventions from the romcom genre that we're see so many bloody times before.  When one strips away the Asian cast and setting, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is, deep down, just another run of the mill Hollywood romcom, replete with all of the genre's most well worn and frankly overused formulas.  Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that approach, per se, but at this alarmingly late stage in the game is it too much to ask for a film that celebrates its Asian crew and a spirit of trend-setting inclusion at least populate them in a story that's equally pioneering?  



And at a somewhat nonsensically bloated running time of two hours, CRAZY RICH ASIANS contains an overall premise and plot that seems more ripe for a daytime soap opera than big screen treatment and consumption.  The film has trappings of a classic fairy tale of two lovers at polar opposite ends of the social and economic ladder that have to fight to maintain their loving union when oppressive barriers rear their ugly heads.  Of the few aspects of CRAZY RICH ASIANS that's refreshing is that the lovers in question are already together and madly in love at the beginning of the story, so no chance meet-cutes and no exposition as to how they met and how they came together.  One of them is a self-made woman of limitless intelligence named Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who's an esteemed professor of economics and game theory at New York University.  She seemingly has it all already, especially in the relationship department with Nick Young (Henry Golding), and the pair have been inseparable for over a year.  Marriage seems on the horizon, even though neither has verbally spoken of it.   

What Rachel seems blissfully and somewhat illogically unaware of over the last twelve months is that she's been dating one of the wealthiest and most well known bachelors in not only his home country, but arguably in the world.  His Singapore based family are rich...like...crazy rich.  Rachel begins to learn of Nick's unfathomable affluence when they step on board their ultra posh first class plane that's set to fly back home to China.  Now, CRAZY RICH ASIANS establishes Rachel as a tenaciously smart women that's one of the leading experts in her field, yet she's never done a basic Google searched on her future husband, nor is she aware of his massive social media popularity across the world.   

Yup.  Sure.  Uh huh.  Whatever.  

Anyhoo', the pair make it over to Singapore, during which time Rachel becomes completely blown away by just how rich Nick and his family are.  Complicating matters is Nick's intimidating mother, Eleanor Young (a perfectly cast Michelle Yeoh), who's not outright in her hostility towards Rachel, but nevertheless evokes a heavily scrutinizing aura of influence over her, whom she perceives as way, way below her son's standards of an acceptable bride.  One of the bright spots of CRAZY RICH ASIANS is with Yeoh's casting, who never plays Eleanor as a venomous tiger-mom stereotype, but still manages to infuse in her a delicate balancing act between wounded pride and an authoritative matriarch that will stop at absolutely nothing to ensure that her family's legacy is not tainted by what she perceives as a gold digger in Rachel that's not pure blood Chinese.  In her mind, Rachel is a self-serving Yankee that has no business becoming a part of the family legacy she's spent a lifetime building and maintaining.  

Another thing that helps CRAZY RICH ASIANS is the palpable chemistry between Wu and Golding as a couple that are passionate for one another that, regrettably, are between a rock and a very hard place.  The pair make for genuinely authentic on screen lovers, and Wu in particular really helps to carry the film with her unique brand of infectious spunk and naive innocence.  I only wished, though, that Golding was giving more of a character on paper to play here, mostly because he's superficially just presented as a wish-fulfillment object of desire here stripped right off of a Harlequin romance novel cover...and not much else.  He's deliriously handsome and generally nice, but he's mostly an empty vessel prop that propels the plot forward.  

Like so many other romcoms, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is also quite guilty of never probing its characters deeply or with any complex nuance.  That, and there are also a multitude of extra characters and subplots that are introduced, only then to be ignored and underwritten at the drop of a hat.  Like, for instance, the arc involving Nick's cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), who sees her own relationship with her husband slowly become more unraveled by the day in a subplot that never seems as developed as its should have been.  And when CRAZY RICH ASIANS is going down some truly solemn narrative threads it props up the obligatory wacky sidekick to the main character that's inserted into various scenes throughout for the purpose of generating laughs.  Rapper turned actress Goh Peik Lin plays just such a character here, and she brings a welcoming sense of unpredictable comic energy to the film with a character that, to be fair, is written on pure autopilot.  

There's something else that left a really bad taste in my mouth about CRAZY RICH ASIANS: This movie is excessive wealth and rampant consumerism porn.  The flamboyantly over-the-top luxuries that are shown as the daily lives of Nick's family members - with their multiple mansions, private jets, helicopters and islands - is borderline obscene at times.  I found my emotional buy-in and investment in these characters and their problems all but null and void, seeing as they all live in a remarkably comfortable and self-preserved universe of ridiculous financial fortune that 99% of audience members - let alone most Asians and non-Asians alike - will most likely never attain in their existence.  CRAZY RICH ASIANS wants to have its cake and eat it too: It desires to mock and laugh at these rich people, but at the same time it also rejoices and props up their affluence for the purposes of enforcing the fantasy elements of the story; it's all more than a bit off-putting.  

I think there could have been a really compelling area of interest that CRAZY RICH ASIANS should have explored in terms of how money and a family's lust for power and riches have tainted their souls and, in turn, how they negatively affect them letting outsiders like Rachel into the mix.  Unfortunately, the makers here spend more time relishing at the thought of transporting viewers from one orgasmically opulent set piece to the next that engages in a bit too much hero worshiping of the decadence of Nick's family.  Yeah, yeah...CRAZY RICH ASIANS is trying to be a pure and noble minded bit of romcom escapism, but why couldn't its script be as refreshingly cutting edge as its ethnic makeup?  No doubt, this film is a milestone in terms of Hollywood taking notice of the importance of proper ethnic representation in the industry (and fixing the lack thereof status quos that have sickeningly permeated the industry for decades).  This cast assembled here is sensational.  We need more films with all Asian casts.  We need more films from different cultural prerogatives to enrich and mature the medium.    

We also need better films than CRAZY RICH ASIANS to champion those causes.


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