For any romantic comedy to succeed we have to somewhat believe the two stars actually like each other. A depressingly low bar but it’s shocking how few romantic comedies seem to ever clear it. Instead, most romantic comedies surprise us with their limbo prowess. Jon. M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians goes above and beyond and gives us, not just a couple, but a veritable buffet of interesting characters.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding), aside from being a gorgeous couple, are believable. Whatever bizarre alchemy required for us to believe these two people whom we have never met before are destined to be together Wu and Golding seem to have the recipe down to perfection. It doesn’t hurt that Wu’s Rachel is considerably smarter than the average romantic heroine.
Adele Lin and Peter Chiarelli adapted the script from Kevin Kwan’s books. Rachel is an NYU professor of Economics. Lin and Chiarelli refreshingly do more than give Rachel a smart-sounding job. So many screenplays give characters smart sounding jobs as a way to bypass having to show their intelligence. Here, Rachel is allowed to actually be smart. She is more than her job, but her job is a part of who she is.
Crazy Rich Asians frames its story from Rachel’s point of view. When Rachel and her friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) arrive at Nick’s grandma’s house, we feel their sense of awe and wonder. Indeed even the shot of Nick walking towards the car is meant to be from Rachel’s point of view.
Crazy Rich Asians explores class in a way most romantic comedies overlook. Lin and Chiarelli look at class not as just lower and upper, but as social conduits into how we behave and are perceived by others in their culture. Nick is old money and Peik Lin is new money. Both families are rich but both families express their wealth in different ways. The Gohs live in a palatial mansion. Peik Lin wears flashy silk pajamas and drives fancy cars. But the family still eats chicken nuggets from happy meals. Possibly the most telling difference is the Gohs live by themselves, while the Young’s have servants.
Servants are consistently on the edges of the frames, cleaning up, cooking, or setting up for an event. What little we see of the Gohs, Wye Mun (Ken Jeong) and his wife Neenah (Chieng Mun Koh), are brash, loud, and display a delirious amount of public affection. Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is reticent, quiet, and always wears an enigmatic impossible to read facade.
All of this bubbles underneath Rachel visiting Singapore with Nick for his best friend’s wedding. Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta Lee’s (Sonoya Mizuno) wedding is the fulcrum of which almost all of Crazy Rich Asians hangs on. The wedding is a brilliant plot device that effortlessly brings together a Robert Altman size cast of characters. Much like Rachel, we feel a dizzying sense of being overwhelmed by all this information. But Chu’s sure directorial hand keeps it all from spiraling out of control.
Crazy Rich Asians has so many strands of stories going on it would be easy to get lost. Instead, incredibly, the stories converge and resolve at the wedding. It’s as if Lin and Chiarelli, took an entire season of a soap opera series and made it into a streamlined two-hour feature.
Jon M. Chu has directed movies such as Step Up 2 the Streets, Step Up 3D, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, and Jem and the Holograms. It’s a resume that’s easy to scoff at but if you look closely you’ll see a distinct visual eye. Rachel, Nick, Colin, and Araminta Lee, go to Newton Circus for dinner. Chu and his editor Myron Kerstein, craft a seamless and perfect montage. The duo makes the preparation of Singaporean cuisine seem visceral and tantalizing palpable.
Of all the characters that populate Crazy Rich Asians, Singapore stands above them all. Chu and his cinematographer Vanja Cernjul, along with Kerstein, bring Singapore to your local multiplex. Much like New York is a living breathing character in Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese movies, Singapore is the vibrant soul of Crazy Rich Asians.
It’s a mistake to label Crazy Rich Asians as simple romantic crowd-pleasing fluff. Chu and the writer’s cram multiple storylines into a single scene. The wedding at the end is breathtaking because of how Chu and company have assembled all the characters in one setting. Granted, the ceremony itself is hands down one of the more evocative weddings I’ve seen in a long time.
Rachel and Eleanor play a game of Mahjong towards the end. I know nothing about the rules of Mahjong. But Chu, Kerstien, and Cernjul, make it so, despite my ignorance, I understand the game completely. Through editing and framing, we understand exactly what’s going on. Even better Chu prepared us for this game way back in the beginning when we met Rachel playing poker in class.
Chu has an innate understanding of when his characters should talk and when they shouldn’t. Opting instead to let the camera capture their faces and let their eyes express the necessary emotions. A perfect example comes when Rachel leaves the Mahjong game. Her mother, Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua) stands up and takes her hand. Kerry and Eleanor share a wordless look. The result is devastating in what is conveyed between the two actresses.
If Crazy Rich Asians has a flaw it’s the men seem less interesting than the women. Gemma Chan’s Astrid is more compelling than her husband Michael (Pierre Png). As a couple, they are attractive but share little chemistry. I found the philanthropic and shy Astrid much more compelling than the stoic but somewhat childish Michael. The same goes for Alistair (Remy Hi) and Kitty (Fiona Xie). Xie’s ditzy and gleefully shallow Kitty felt alive compared to her male counterpart.
Still, having the male characters exist almost solely for the female gaze is hardly a flaw. Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy after all. While the men are there solely to look good, Chu manages to not objectify them. They have goals, desires, and resemble actual people much more than most romantic comedies.
I loved every frame of Crazy Rich Asians. More than any other recent romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen. It is a sumptuous brightly colored feast for the eyes. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians is so effortless joyous and seamless; you could be forgiven for missing its artistry.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures