CRAZY RICH ASIANS: Stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, and Ken Jeong; written by Adele Lim and Pete Chiarelli; directed by Jon M. Chu; 120 minutes; Rated PG-13. Critic’s rating: B.
Nothing wears quite as well, particularly on the big screen, as snooty characters — especially those on the racist, bigoted tip of the self-righteous spectrum — getting their comeuppance.
That’s how, in the prologue of “Crazy Rich Asians,” we’re introduced to several of the film’s central characters: In 1995, a family group including Singapore mom Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) and her son Nick (Henry Golding) attempt to check in to an upscale London hotel, having already made a reservation. A white manager, nose placed firmly in the air, suggests that the party should look for a place to stay in Chinatown.
Eleanor promptly makes a phone call, returns to the front desk, announces that the Youngs are now the proud owners of the joint, and advises the staff to get her room ready.
A little more than two decades later, a young invitee to a swanky party at the sprawling, impossibly luxurious Young compound in Singapore describes the family as being akin to royalty, “posh and snobby — sposhy.” And Eleanor engages in a bit of stereotyping herself, taking pains to let others know that she appreciates the difference between Asians like herself and, you know, interloping American-born Asians.
So are we watching a revenge-is-a-dish-best-served-cold fantasy morph into a cautionary tale of how the Golden Rule — treat others as you would have others treat you — is so easily forgotten when one comes into enormous wealth and accompanying power? Is it a perceptive deep dive into the personal politics of intra-group stereotyping?
There’s much to like about “Crazy Rich Asians,” a highly anticipated adaptation of Kevin Kwan‘s bestselling 2013 novel of the same name, including some winning performances by Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), newcomer Golding, Constance Wu (television’s “Fresh Off the Boat”) as Henry’s love interest Rachel, rapper/actress Awkafina (“Ocean’s 8”) as her comic sidekick Goh Peik Lin, an underused Ken Jeoung (The “Hangover” films, television’s “Community”), and others in the oversized cast.
It’s impossible, too, not to be taken by director Jon M. Chu’s skill in stitching together a multigenerational patchwork of Nick’s family and friends, to whom NYU prof Rachel is introduced when she treks to Singapore to attend the wedding of her beau’s best friend.
The achievement takes on greater meaning when placed in a broader context: Unbelievably, and to Hollywood’s discredit, the nearly all-Asian cast represents the largest such onscreen gathering in a La La Land production since “The Joy Luck Club,” a quarter-century ago. The sole white faces — tokens? — are the blink-and-you’ll miss ’em characters in the prologue, and gyrating bikini-clad girls at the out-of-control bachelor party on a barge in international waters.
So it’s a legit and welcome cultural achievement, even more towering in the light of Hollywood’s generally shameful treatment of Asian actors, previously mostly relegated to small roles (usually immigrant strivers or villains) and sometimes even played by Caucasians.
And yet, like its source material, Chu’s movie is fairly boilerplate romcom, the tale of a middle-class girl who falls in love with an uberwealthy boy. The two must figure out a way to bridge a cross-cultural gap that’s a bit more unique — okay, more exotic — than your average royalty-versus-commoner or Sharks-vs-Jets conflict. Spoiler alert: Boy loses girl, and emotional anguish ensues, before boy wins girl again.
Chu throws in some artfully photographed Singapore travel sights — a bustling courtyard packed with street-stall hawkers selling delicacies, the Marina Bay Sands Skypark across three 55-story hotel towers, the Supertree Grove — and upscale consumerist porn, and one of the most elaborately staged and most gorgeous wedding sequences ever caught on film. Not to mention direct or indirect references to reality-show flavors then and now, including the likes of “The Bachelor,” the “Real Housewives” series, “Queer Eye” (except this time for the straight gal), beauty makeover shows, and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
The result is a slick, handsomely produced modern Cinderella-story concoction that’s uniformly pleasant, frequently very funny, and manages to resolve all the key conflicts in 120 minutes or less. Also: It’s a bit overlong but somehow slightly undercooked.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a romcom that really wants to be loved, an easy-on-the-eyes feelgood party that appears to invite all comers. It’s so money, baby, and it knows it. If Chu’s movie is as successful at the box office as it looks to be, it will result in the greenlighting of two follow-up films spun from Kwan’s sequel novels and break some racial barriers that should have and could have been knocked over 25 years ago. Is that enough?