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Rachel Chu, the hero of the new romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, embodies the American Dream. Her mother immigrated to the United States from China so Rachel could have a better life, and now she is an economics professor. This is a broadly appealing character—funny, warm, and smart— and Rachel’s American values are key to the film’s success since Crazy Rich Asians relies on a “fish out of water” premise. Most of the film takes place in Singapore, among men and women so wealthy that their lifestyle is difficult to fathom, so part of the thrill is how director Jon M. Chu highlights their extravagance. Beneath the glamorous surface, however, is a shrewd exploration of how economic class does not necessarily suggest strong values.
When we meet Rachel, she is playing poker. This is part of an economics lecture; she uses game theory to size up her opponent, and take the pot. Rachel does not use these skills in her personal life, since her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) is such a sweetheart, and she wants to make a good impression with his family. Nick’s friend is getting married in Singapore, and he’s the best man, so Nick insists she come along for the celebration. Nick is not just “well off ”—his family is one of the country’s biggest landowners. Everyone is polite to Rachel, but it is hard for her to tell whose affection is real and who smiles through gritted teeth. As the festivities get underway, the considerable strain between Rachel and Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), only gets worse.
The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim has a simple, effective two-pronged approach: There are comic scenes featuring some terrific Asian-American comedians, coupled with dramatic scenes where Rachel tries to fit into the Young dynasty. As Rachel’s college roommate, Awkwafina steals the show as someone who understands this milieu, and defies its rules. Nick’s cousin Oliver (Nico Santos) is even more embedded, so his snarky commentary is all the more delicious and risky. These characters are outsiders, instinctively siding with Rachel, while many other characters are downright nasty to her. Ronny Chieng plays yet another cousin, and he is the vulgar embodiment of how wealth cannot buy manners or taste.
On top of the catty dialogue, Crazy Rich Asians is a terrific exploration of opulence. Some of the sets have to be seen to be believed: The bachelor party includes a massive party barge, plus a quiet sojourn to an isolated dock in the middle of a crystal-blue beach. The eventual wedding ceremony includes flourishes so over-the-top you have to admire the gall and imagination it required. Chu directs with a glitzy, fast-moving camera—giving the impression that we are watching a reality TV show about the Youngs—except the trick is that this is normal to everyone except Rachel. There are some tense, slower sequences, like a session where the Youngs make dumplings and we see how absurd expectations transfer from one generation to the next. Still, this film is a sugary feast, or a travelogue for a holiday few of us can ever afford.
Aside from Wu, who gives a star-making performance as Rachel, Yeoh is key to the film’s success. Eleanor is not just a domineering, controlling matriarch, but a woman whose identity is tied to her family’s sense of protocol. She has many scenes with Wu, and Yeoh’s body language is like a snake that’s toying with its prey. It’s a tightly controlled performance, one that feels all the more intense since Golding is such a charmer as Nick. Nick is not a buffoon, nor is his character on auto-pilot. Even when he and Rachel disagree, there is more to him than typical misunderstandings and good intentions. Kevin Kwan, who wrote the book that inspired the film, includes much more backstory in his novel. The screenplay cuts away some of it, while preserving the character development that made the book such a hit.
Few Hollywood films have Asian-Americans in the starring roles, so this one represents an important step toward more inclusion and diversity in pop culture. Of course, Crazy Rich Asians will probably be popular well beyond audiences who want to see a film about people who look like them. Anyone who has tried to impress their partner’s family will see themselves in Rachel, and even more people have tried (and failed) to make a good impression on a cool customer like Eleanor. By burrowing into what makes this world so extraordinary—and finding what is universal along way—Chu and his terrific cast have made a romantic comedy for everyone.
Crazy Rich Asians is now playing in theaters everywhere.