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Saturday, September 1, 2018

Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding

You have to play to win, which is exactly what Crazy Rich Asians, adapted from the novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan, does. Proving a couple of important things right out of the gate - that the romantic comedy isn't actually dead if the effort is there and the product is good, that there is literally no good reason why a big studio feature can't be comprised of an entirely non-white cast - it doesn't buckle under the weight of its potential as a watershed film, focusing instead on just being a good film, period. Crazy Rich Asians is one of the cinematic highlights of 2018, an enchanting romantic comedy that relies on a good story and strong characters, rather than on the audience accepting dumb plot contrivances, in order to work. Crazy Rich Asians is a great way to bring the summer movie season to a close.

Crazy Rich Asians starts in New York, with economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) accepting the invitation of her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to join him on a trip to Singapore to attend a friend's wedding. While they're there Rachel will also reunite with her college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and meet Nick's family, about whom she knows very little. To her shock, she learns that Nick comes from an extremely wealthy family and that, as his grandmother's favorite, he has been positioned as the heir apparent to the empire. His position in the family has been carefully designed by his mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who sees Rachel as an impediment to Nick fulfilling what she sees as his destiny. Eleanor becomes determined to drive a wedge between the couple, but she has plenty of help as just about everyone in Nick's life sees Rachel as too American, too working class, and just wrong for him.

Although the film relies on a few romantic comedy tropes, it also eschews many of the most tried and true of the genre. The film opens when Rachel and Nick already established in their relationship so there's no "meet cute" that contrives to bring the couple together, nor are they kept apart or driven apart by simple misunderstandings that could be easily resolved by them having a conversation. Instead their relationship is undermined by very real things like the class and cultural differences between them and their families, giving the film a real sense of stakes (although, it must be said, that the third act crisis that drives a wedge between Rachel and Nick is a bit weak, in that it doesn't really make sense that she would be mad at him, even though it does ultimately lead to a great scene between her and Eleanor). This is further enhanced by the relationship between Rachel and Eleanor and the way that it ties into Rachel's job, which focuses on game theory. The two of them spend the film engaged in a power game, each searching for leverage against the other, each possessing motivations that go beyond "I hate you because the plot demands that I hate you." The psychology of the film and the characters makes sense, which in turn makes it easy to engage with and become invested in.

The writing and direction of the film are two of its great strengths (credit to Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim and to Jon M. Chu), but the cast is what solidifies it as a must see. Constance Wu is so great as Rachel - a woman who is, by basically any measure most people would use, incredibly successful and yet so easily dismissed and diminished by the people in Nick's world - so winsome and so easily able to carry both the film's most dramatic and comedic moments, that it makes you feel like you've been robbed of all the romantic comedies that she hasn't been able to headline in years past. She's also has nice chemistry with Golding who, as Nick (who, on reflection, is little more than a cipher upon whom the women around him, from Rachel to his mother to his grandmother, project their ideas of what they would like him to be), is called upon to do less but is still a pleasant and charming presence onscreen. The supporting ranks are also full of solid performances, including Yeoh's Eleanor, whose disapproval of Rachel stems largely from a fear that all that she sacrificed in order to get Nick into the position as the family's heir apparent will be for naught if he marries Rachel, and Awkwafina and Nico Santos, playing one of Nick's cousins, are both delightful, with the former stealing most of her scenes.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fantastically entertaining movie that proves that no genre is truly "dead" as long as there are filmmakers willing to make the effort to succeed within the genre. A sequel is already in the works (the novel itself is part of a trilogy) and one can only hope that it manages to capture the same magic that makes this film seem so effortless. Although not without faults, it is ultimately such a strong film that its weaknesses are never dominant. Well written, elegantly directed, and beautifully acted, Crazy Rich Asians is one of the big winners of the summer for sure and likely one of the big winners of the entire year.

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