This age of increased representation has been an unequivocal great thing for film and while there is certainly an argument to be made that there has been little progress in most fields, there’s one area that often gets overlooked more than others. As my Latina friend has commented on a number of times, there have been plenty of races that have not seen their due. It’s been 25 years since a Hollywood studio film, Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club, featured actors of Asian descent in the leading roles which is frankly ridiculous. Thankfully, that ignoble streak comes to an end with Crazy Rich Asians, Jon Chu’s romantic comedy adaptation of the book of the same name.
Wikipedia and so many reviews of course tries to call the cast of Crazy Rich Asians Asian-Americans, but I don’t even think half the cast is American including most of the prominent actors such as Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Tan Kheng Hua, Chris Pang, and Sonoya Mizuno who all hail from elsewhere. Instead it is a truly global cast led by an American, Fresh Off the Boat‘s breakout talent of Constance Wu as Rachel Chu. Wu plays an American economics professor specializing in game theory who lives frugally with her boyfriend Nick Young (Golding). On their way to the wedding of his friend in Singapore where he is to serve as best man, she makes the startling discovery that he comes from a mega-rich family.
Rachel fits right into Singapore, and film practically acts as an overdone advertisement for the nation, and with certain members of his family, but the welcome she receives from most is far from warm. She faces competition from other women who want the nation’s most eligible bachelor, family members who resent her unrefined, Chinese-American single mother upbringing, and most importantly Nick’s mother played by Yeoh. She resents everything about Rachel as well as her ambitions in New York City (far away from the family business which Nick stands to inherit).
There is a lot of decadence and color on display (the graphics early on most notably), but the film seems to be caught between embracing it and keeping it at arm’s length. Probably because so many of the people caught up in the wealth are depicted as being so insufferable. As a result, the film, mostly through an awkward parallel story with Chan’s Astrid, tries to balance that out and say “there’s nothing wrong with showing off your wealth” which might only work for her since she is portrayed as basically the second coming.
The cast is talented if a bit overloaded. Constance Wu makes the most of her chance to shine as a lead actor. She’s endlessly charming and talented. It’s her movie through and through. The chemistry she shares with Golding kept me invested in them even through all the generic romcom struggles which would normally lose me. That’s not to say the cast or plot is perfect. Awkwafina (Future Man, Ocean’s 8) and her family (including her father as portrayed by Ken Jeong) tried my patience with their broad characters. In addition, going along with that oversized cast is the fact that this did not need to be nearly two hours (listed as 121 minutes). The film’s mostly light and frothy feel would have benefited from a quicker pace.
For any of its faults though, Crazy Rich Asians is still a funny movie and for a romantic comedy is fairly fresh. I imagine that for people who are more into the genre than myself, it will be even more successful, but even for those who are ambivalent about romcoms, it still has plenty to offer. The focus may be on an underserved portion of the moviegoing audience, but it’s just simply a well-made film both separated from that with plenty of interesting and compelling (and some less so) characters and driven by that as the Asian and Asian-American elements are essential to the film and add a unique touch. It’s the unique touch which a lack of diversity deprives us all of.