Jon M. Chu’s film is being widely touted as the first Hollywood romantic comedy to focus on Asian characters, and on that basis alone one would like it to stand above the ordinarily mediocre examples of the type. But while it’s nice that the rom-com has embraced an ethnic group not previously spotlighted by studios, “Crazy Rich Asians” is little more than a cascade of genre clichés, lightly dusted with heavy-handed, and arguably insensitive, cultural trappings.
The basic plot is one you’ve heard many times before: two adorable twenty-somethings find their love endangered by the young man’s mother, who considers the girl unsuitable for her son. The girl is Rachel (Constance Wu), a spunky, gregarious economics professor, the daughter of a single mom (Tan Kheng Hua), an immigrant who worked long hours to give her the chance to succeed. Rachel is in a longstanding relationship with Nick Young (Henry Golding), a preternaturally handsome hunk whose familial background she’s apparently never inquired about, despite their having been a couple for years.
He, meanwhile, has never bothered to tell her that he’s the eldest son of the wealthiest clan in Singapore, real-estate moguls who have been local royalty since the early nineteenth century. (Actually, the guy comes across throughout as a complete doofus, though one supposes that his beefcake physique and sparkling smile are meant to compensate for his utter cluelessness.) When he invites Rachel to go home with him for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang), a photo of them snapped by a fellow customer in a diner goes viral back in Singapore before they arrive. (It’s pure coincidence, apparently, that they’re noticed by somebody with a smartphone only now, though they’ve supposedly been dating for years.)
What this means is that when they arrive, all the young women in the societal upper-crust—who have had their hooks out for Nick since infancy, no doubt—consider Rachel a usurping gold-digger, while his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), a reserved, imperious woman who treasures Chinese traditions of propriety and an implicit willingness to set aside one’s own dreams in the service of familial and social responsibility, is determined to break them up, regarding Rachel as a typically self-centered American.
The outcome of this struggle for Nick’s heart—will he ultimately choose family obligation or the woman he loves?—is, of course, never really in doubt, but the script adapted by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim from Kevin Kwan’s novel goes through the motions of trying to keep us guessing, even as it takes us to a happy ending so contrived and abrupt that it would hardly pass as plausible even in a star-struck young girl’s adolescent princess fantasies.
But the screenplay also situates the central plot within a portrait of contemporary ultra-wealthy Singapore society that splits it into two groups, both populated by stereotypical sitcom characters. On the one hand there’s the hidebound older generation that surrounds Eleanor—a bevy of tittering older ladies that might have come out of a casting call for a Chinese version of “Golden Girls.” (The men are either absent or on the margins of the frame.) On the other hand we have Nick’s contemporaries, who with the exception of regular guy Colin and Nick’s sister do-gooder Astrid (Gemma Chan)—who married a commoner (Pierre Png) herself—are portrayed as an utterly materialistic bunch of empty-headed hedonists. (Nick’s brothers are especially repellant.) The worst examples of their love for garish excess are the bachelor and bachelorette parties their friends throw for Colin and his bride-to-be (though the wedding itself is a close runner-up). The word “crazy” is in the title, of course, but it’s much too mild a term for these spendthrift lunkheads; whatever critique is intended, however, gets lost in the glitzy shuffle (as does any implication in the troubles in Astrid’s marriage—are they meant to imply difficulties ahead for Nick and Rachel if they get hitched?).
Perhaps to compensate for this portrait of the vacuous pseudo-glamour in Singapore’s high society, the movie periodically turns into what amount to an enticing travelogue for the city, consisting of glossy shots of its mansions, bridges and gleaming skyscrapers, all accompanied by the abominably bouncy music of Brian Tyler. It must be admitted that production designer Nelson Coates, costumer Mart Vogt and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul have all outdone themselves in the visual departments, but in the end the ostentation comes off as crass and vulgar, whatever its pretensions.
Nor do the performances elevate matters. Chu is petite and attractive and Golding incredibly good-looking, but both offer more posing than acting, and Yeoh’s stern, sour-faced mother figure is a cartoon villainous.
Are there standouts amid the glitter? Well, some might enjoy the antics of Awkwafina as Rachel’s school chum Peik Lin Goh, a bundle of energy and caustic remarks straight out of sitcom territory; but her bug-eyed, frantic turn might easily irritate, especially when combined with the extra-broad performances of Ken Jeong and Chieng Mun Koh as her wacky parents, who—we’re told—patterned their home décor after Versailles, down to the gold filigree. (Their son P.T., played by Calvin Wong, is, by contrast, pretty creepy, with his obsession over Rachel.) Better is the work of Nico Santos as Oliver, a Young family cousin who acts as sort of an unofficial fixer. Yes, the character is a caricature of the effete hanger-on, but Santos pulls it off remarkably well.
Of course, whatever the script problems one must ultimately lay blame for the movie’s defects at the feet of director Chu, whose previous efforts—a couple of “Step Up” movies, the “G.I. Joe” sequel and “Now You See Me 2,” along with some Justin Bieber documentaries—have sadly proven prophetic here. By indulging the frantic overplaying of most of the cast, he only accentuates the plot’s glaring weaknesses.
Given its groundbreaking aspects, one wishes that “Crazy Rich Asians” were better. But there are plenty of good movies, including romances, out there with Asian casts. You only have to be willing to read subtitles to enjoy them.