Banking on a nearly all-Asian cast for the first time in big-studio history, Warner Bros. delivers a fresh twist on the princess-movie formula.
By PETER DEBRUGE
With: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh
Rated PG-13 2 hours
At New York’s Serendipity 3 café, money-is-no-object customers can order a $1,000 sundae that’s garnished with gold leaf. Like plunking a cherry atop such an extravagant dessert, the delirious sugar high that is “Crazy Rich Asians” ends with fireworks exploding along the roof of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands hotel — one of the world’s most expensive buildings. Surprisingly enough, it’s the first touch that genuinely feels over-the-top in a movie that expertly manages to balance the opulence of incalculable wealth with the pragmatic, well-grounded sensibility embodied by its heroine, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a middle-class economics professor who discovers that her Singapore-born boyfriend is not just handsome but worth more than the GDP of most countries.
If those pyrotechnic bursts seem to be gilding the lily, it’s only because Warner Bros.’ spared-no-expense adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s status-obsessed best-seller already feels like a grand, two-hour fireworks show, one in which gorgeous Asian stars parade around in dazzling, brightly colored couture, driving luxury cars to and from locations that suggest a cross between Versailles and Donald Trump’s bathroom (no, really, those are the design influences). Normally, such grandiosity is reserved for the queen of England, or the rarefied circles in which James Bond operates, although director Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 2: The Streets”) has crafted a broadly appealing charmer in which practically anyone can identify with Wu’s character as she’s whisked into this elite milieu.
This is wish-fulfillment fantasy on a whole other level. Kwan’s characters aren’t just rich, they’re crazy rich (and in some cases, just plain crazy), which makes Chu’s version the most blinged-out big-screen romance since Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” — minus the looming sense of tragedy that separates F. Scott Fitzgerald from a guilty-pleasure beach-read writer like Kwan. As books go, “Crazy Rich Asians” is unapologetically tacky, a finger-snapping satire of the conflict between old-money attitudes and nouveau-riche ambition at a moment when Asia is producing billionaires by the dozen. To their credit, screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim keep the sass while filing down its fangs to make the characters more agreeable all around.
Rachel remains a smart, self-reliant character who finds herself at the center of a sparkling princess fantasy — except that unlike the clichéd heroines of such movies, she isn’t waiting for a makeover or for some kinky Christian Grey type to come along and transform her life. If anything, the conflict here is that her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), has to convince his family that she’s the one for him and, as favorite son and heir to a dynasty of real estate moguls, might have to sacrifice his fortune if he doesn’t want to lose her.
Following brief prologues in London and New York, the pageant that is “Crazy Rich Asians” takes place on a trip back to Singapore, after Nick invites Rachel to be his date at his best friend’s wedding. She’s understandably nervous about meeting his mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, kinder and far more dignified than the conniving matriarch described in the book), and never imagined that Nick, who hasn’t mentioned what kind of family he comes from, could be so loaded.
Hanging out with his friends, who take her to the city’s hawker stalls for an unpretentious street-food meal, she’s slow to pick up on just how wealthy the Youngs are. The movie milks this brilliant young woman’s naiveté for as long as it can (until the big reveal of the Youngs’ palatial estate, shown in a breathtaking flyover helicopter shot), although it cleverly tips audiences off to the family’s buying power in that earlier London-set scene, in which the racist British staff turns Eleanor away from a posh private hotel, only to be instantly humbled after she makes a quick phone call to her husband, who purchases the business out from under them.
That’s a hugely empowering moment for not only Asians but anyone who has ever been discriminated against for not being part of the white establishment, and it sets the tone for a film that celebrates a world in which money can buy everything but common sense, rolling its eyes at how outrageously those who have it choose to spend their millions. Once in Singapore, Rachel reaches out to her filthy-rich college roommate, Peik Lin (Awkwafina, winning laughs with her mix of wide-eyed incredulity and faux-disaffected ’tude), who essentially serves as a substitute fairy godmother, coaching Rachel on fashion and how to handle herself among the Singapore super-elite. (The movie’s other comic standout is “The Hangover” star Ken Jeong, playing Peik Lin’s hilariously inappropriate father.)
Nick and the guys head for a bachelor party on international waters (where there are no laws against firing bazookas, apparently), leaving Rachel to join the bride’s friends on a nearby island, where they’re treated to an all-expense shopping spree and other chichi perks. While audiences try to process the excess, Wu plays it cool and unimpressed, earning our admiration as precisely the opposite of the gold-digger everyone mistakes her for. And though the movie becomes predictable in its final stretch, the depth of her character’s integrity is poignantly conveyed over a strategic game of mahjong with her would-be mother-in-law.
As entertaining as the more opulent displays must have been to stage, director Chu actually had to tone things down from the source material, in which the wedding involves private performances by the Vienna Boys’ Choir and Cirque du Soleil (even so, the multimillion-dollar event is jaw-dropping, leaving “Mamma Mia!” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn” in the dust). In the book, Kwan quotes Far East explorer Marco Polo’s deathbed claim, “I did not tell half of what I saw, for no one would have believed me,” and the same filter was clearly required here — without limiting the film’s visual excess in the slightest. Though most of the dresses are designer (Asians’ obsession with European brands is a running joke), costume chief Mary Vogt is to be commended for the way her selections convey the personalities of the characters who wear these fabulous frocks, as her job isn’t merely to wow but to define the people she’s outfitting.
And this is one massive ensemble she’s working with, so much so that it can be tough to keep the characters straight. Money may be the surface distraction here, but the true theme is family — and what it means to Asian culture in particular. Rachel may be an embodiment of the American dream, having been raised by a single working-class immigrant mom (Kheng Hua Tan), but her lack of family ties is an issue with the Young clan, whose many generations are assembled for the occasion.
The moment Rachel meets Nick’s amah (Lisa Lu) feels wonderfully propitious as the camera pans to witness the rare bloom of a Tan Hua flower, although not all the relatives are so welcoming. Of Nick’s three cousins, two are insufferable with their jealous gossip and shameful shenanigans, while big-spending Astrid (Gemma Chan), who flies to Paris regularly and has been known to drop seven figures when she shops, makes an elegant ally for Rachel.
It’s no secret that there’s a lot riding on this movie, which seems to have anticipated the call for wider representation in Hollywood, but comes with the added pressure that one bomb is all it takes for skittish development executives to nix future projects featuring nearly all-Asian casts. Don’t worry: “Crazy Rich Asians” won’t bomb, and while it won’t beat “Black Panther” either, the film is every bit as exciting in the way it takes an ethnic group that is seldom given more than one or two supporting roles per movie and populates an entire blockbuster with memorable, multidimensional Asian characters.