Crazy Rich Asians is an important movie for all sorts of reasons, chiefly because it’s the first Hollywood studio movie since Wayne Wang’s 1993 Joy Luck Club to feature an all Asian or Asian-American cast. But to sell Crazy Rich Asians solely as a breakthrough in representation—as important as that is—would do the picture a disservice: It’s simply great fun, a winsome romantic comedy and an occasionally over-the-top luxury fantasy that never flags. Within that context, it manages to fold in a few serious elements that hit close to home, in America’s new era of hostility toward immigrants. It also features a uniformly appealing cast of actors, quite a few of whom have the faces of true, old-school movie stars—faces that the camera just adores. How often do you get all that in a movie featuring mostly white people?
Based on Kevin Kwan’s hugely popular novel, Crazy Rich Asians follows the travails of a young couple who, while deeply in love, hit a wall when family gets involved. Rachel (Constance Wu, who has appeared in a number of independent films, including the 2011 Sound of My Voice, as well as TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is an economics professor at NYU, the daughter of a single mother who came to the States from China just before she was born. Boyfriend Nick (newcomer Henry Golding) is the scion of a massively rich Singaporean family, though Rachel has no idea about that: Nick is just cute and nice and has a penchant for polishing off the desserts she orders whenever they eat out.
Nick is planning a trip back to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Would Rachel like to come? She agrees, hesitantly, nervous about meeting his family, particularly his mother, Eleanor (the as-always magnificent Michelle Yeoh). It turns out that Eleanor is even frostier and less welcoming than Rachel had feared. It also turns out that Nick’s family is far richer than she could have imagined, and when she arrives in Singapore—ready to meet the extended family in a dress that’s adorable but also completely wrong—this exceedingly well-mannered and down-to-Earth young woman is greeted as a gold-digging schemer.
That’s the plot, basically, of 1,001 stories you’ve seen before. Yet you’ve never seen anything quite like Crazy Rich Asians. Director Jon M. Chu made two of the Step Up films, as well as Now You See Me 2 and GI Joe: Retaliation—until now, you might have called him The Sequel Guy. But he knows what he’s doing here, orchestrating a lavishly designed circus of excess, which sometimes shifts into a slightly more serious fable about class snobbery, excessive family pride and the path of true love. The only problem is that there are so many characters, he can’t always delineate them clearly: A few of them, like that of Nick’s kind, gracious, elegant cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), don’t feel fully shaped.
But that hardly matters. The two leads, Wu and Golding, are charming and genuine, and the supporting performers around them keep the whole mad story spinning—this thing is never boring. Yeoh, as Eleanor, is suitably regal, though she also shows flashes of wholly believable sympathy. Rachel’s mother, whose story turns out to be more complicated and more wrenching than we might have imagined, is played by Singaporean stage and TV actor Tan Kheng Hua—she’s wonderful, bringing a blaze of warmth to the film’s more serious moments. The picture is dotted with actors who show up just for pure, loopy comic relief: Ken Jeong is a nouveau-riche dad with a wardrobe of tacky gold athleisure outfits. Jimmy O. Yang plays an old pal of Nick’s who seems lost in some vision of ’80s excess—he shows up for a bachelor blowout in a wild shirt opened way past the navel, and though he has very few lines, he’s hilarious. There’s also an ambitious actress, played by Fiona Xu, with the delightfully trashy name Kitty Pong.
And if nothing else, Crazy Rich Asians gives us one superb sidekick in Awkwafina—A.K.A. Nora Lum—the rapper-actor who recently lit up Ocean’s 8 as a deadpan, skateboarding pickpocket. Good sidekicks are the essential secret ingredient of all good romantic comedies, yet it seems that Hollywood has forgotten how to write and cast them. (Then again, until right now, it seems to have forgotten how to write and cast romantic comedies, period.) In Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina plays Peik Lin, Rachel’s Singaporean college roommate, with whom she reunites on her trip. Peik Lin comes from new money, not old, and it shows: Her outfits (courtesy of the movie’s costume designer Mary E. Vogt) are genius. In her first scene, she wears a silky PJ outfit printed with serious-looking hunting dogs; later, she pops up in a kiddie pinafore printed with kitty-cats. When she learns that Rachel is about to meet Nick’s totally stuffy family, she comes to the rescue, providing her friend with a rad, slinky Missoni-style dress to wear. She also gives her an impromptu lesson in the genesis of Nick’s family riches, grabbing a tacky but obviously expensive handbag as a prop. (It’s printed with a world map, so she can point out how far the dynasty’s money tentacles extend.)
As Peik Lin, Akwafina gawps at Nick’s massive, old-money family abode as if it were a fairytale palace festooned with dollar signs. She lectures Rachel on how she absolutely must not back down from the meanies who are trying to derail her romance with Nick. No, she needs to make them run like chickens. “Bok bok, bitch!” must be her mantra. Awkwafina gives Peik Lin a crazy, swaggering soul, and she’s just one of this picture’s gleaming pleasures. In pulling together so many terrific yet unknown or little-seen Asian performers in one movie, Crazy Rich Asians makes you think about all the talent—performers of all colors and ethnic backgrounds—that goes untapped, just because Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with it. Now, there’s no longer an excuse. So what’s it going to be, Hollywood? Bok bok, bitch.