Crazy Rich Asians
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.
Rachel (Constance Wu, entirely appealing) isn't far at all from the Pretty Woman or Cinderella persona – excepting her being a successful NYU economics professor rather than a hooker or doormat, although her classes are equally fantasy land, bearing more resemblance to Now You See Me than anything actually higher educational – right down to riches-not-being-intrinsic-to-her-happiness-but-very-nice-all-the-same-thank-you when they come attached to a Prince Charming.
Unfortunately, the Princess Charming in question is probably the movie's biggest stumble. There's a gushingly romantic airplane proposal at the end – in Economy, naturally – during which he must bumble by passengers and profess his bottomless love. You can tell it's been designed for an Asian Hugh Grant, but Henry Golding's Nick is closer to the charisma-free rigidity of a Richard Gere (I see he's an ongoing presenter of The Travel Show for the Beeb, which kind of makes sense).
Nick's family are uber-rich, even by the standards of Singapore's uber-rich, which comes as a shock to Rachel, since he's been reticent about his background. She's as innocent in motive as they come, of course, which means being accused of gold-digging is an affront. Particularly callous accusations come from former girlfriends and hangers-on, but worst is Nick's formidable mother (Michelle Yeoh, on fine form, a relief after her pure wood showing in Star Trek: Discovery), repeatedly making it clear that Rachel isn’t good enough for her son. Inevitably, by the end of the movie she isn't exactly approving, but sufficiently accepting (and all thanks to game theory and a Mahjong match – no one overdoses on the tiles, fortunately – proof that in movies, one can apply one's degree to every aspect of one's life to remarkable effect).
As ever with such fare (see Rupert Everett in My Best Friend's Wedding, Charlotte Coleman in Four Weddings and a Funeral), it's a requirement for the eccentric best pal to steal the proceedings. I know I'm not the first to compare Awkwafina's Peik Lin Goh to Joan Rivers – I suspect every review has – but it undoubtedly bears repeating, as she throws off quip after quip with throaty gusto ("Chinese sons think their moms fart Chanel No. 5"). Awkwafina managed to make her presence felt in the crowded and mostly superfluous Ocean's Eight early in the summer, but here her only competition for attention is Nicos Santos' magnificently camp Oliver ("Your skin is so dry, it's hurting my face"); rather than vie, they bounce of each other in their scenes together.
Elsewhere, Ken Jeong is typically, excruciatingly OTT as Peik Lin's father, while others making an impression include Gemma Chan as Nick's gorgeous but cheated-on cousin and Ronny Chieng as another cousin with idiosyncratic attitudes towards raising and showing off his children (particularly when it comes to family portraits).
I mentioned Now You See Me, and I wonder if it's a coincidence that Jon M Chu directed the sequel to that film (along with G.I. Joe: Retaliation). He brings bags of confidence and visual panache to the table, and amongst the sumptuous (and decadent) locations, a glorious facility for tastelessness (to the extent I'm unsure if the massively expensive wedding is intended to just be repellently tacky or also kind of quite cool; "Is this a church? Or a paddy field?").
He commandeers a very witty opening sequence, in which Rachel and Nick’s presence in a public eatery – as they discuss going to his friend's wedding – finds their photos circulated via texting at express speed, finally reaching Yeoh, hitherto oblivious of Nick's girlfriend, who calls her son before they have even finished their cake (if only the Now You See Mes had an ounce of such explicability with regard to their magical feats). Another nice touch is Mandarin versions of English-language songs (Material Girl, Money (That's What I Want), Yellow, Can't Help Falling in Love), drawing attention to cross-cultural pollination, even as positions of class and heritage among the elites remain entrenched.
Inevitably, Crazy Rich Asians revels in affluence and superficiality while pronouncing that it isn't everything, since that tends to be par for the course with such fare (you can't really be a Disney princess without it: even for Shrek's DreamWorks one) and if the screenplay from Peter Chairelli (bloody Now You See Me 2 again) and Adele Lim is light on its feet in that area, it occasionally grinds its gears as it over-verbalises and over-explains what-I-am-feeling-right-now. Chu meanwhile, despite his zinging, energised approach, can't prevent the proceedings from dragging in places (perhaps a symptom of the writers straying from bouncing back and forth between the "serious" romantic plotlines and the crazy comedic asides).
The picture has offered further proof that Hollywood knows nothing about hit-making (it was financed independently but has been distributed by Warner Bros – Netflix's bid was rejected, which should probably be a lesson to anyone thinking going to them is a safe option; it may be, but it can also mean a very limited profile; see The Guernsey Potato Peel Society). As the first all-Asian American movie since The Joy Luck Club, no doubt the intervening quarter-century was littered with screenplays rejected by the gatekeepers on the basis they'd do no business. Of course, naysayers might argue its success is mainly attributable to following such a recognisable romcom template, but since when has that been bulletproof?
I tend to think the ultimate test of the romcom isn't so much how side-splitting it is as how invested you are in the characters – it's why Pretty Woman falls down for me, on both lead fronts, and why anything with Andie McDowell on one side of the equation comes up short (Four Weddings is fortunate that everything else is a winner). In that regard, Crazy Rich Asians gets it half right, which means, unless the sequel shifts focus, it will probably only be getting it half right again next time.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.