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Front Page - Friday, August 24, 2018

Critic's Corner: Escape to a different, beautiful world with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

“Crazy Rich Asians” is a bubbly, frothy, fizzy piece of entertainment, a romantic comedy that opens a window to a culture that will be new to many viewers. It was to me, and I was captivated.

I’ve seen movies featuring Asian characters before, and watched films set in Asia. But I’d never seen an all-Asian cast in a movie that takes place mostly in an Asian country.

What’s the big deal? Not that “Crazy Rich Asians” is in-your-face Asian, but that the film is an excellent vehicle for immersing viewers in Asian culture.

Now, I don’t know if the film’s portrayal of its insanely wealthy characters is accurate (seriously, these people are so loaded, they make filthy-rich people look like boxcar bums), and I will admit that some of its characters must eat heaping bowls of silly for breakfast (this is a comedy, after all), but the filmmakers found many ways to give the film a genuine Asian heart.

Perhaps the movie’s most obvious manifestation of Asian culture is the character of the disapproving mother, Eleanor. Played with rigid perfection by Michelle Yeoh, Eleanor has spent her life grooming her son, Nick, to take over the family business, and greatly disapproves of his Asian-American girlfriend, Rachel, an economics professor.

Eleanor might sound like a stereotype, but she’s no “monster-in-law.” Instead, she’s a product of her culture, of millennia of severely honed values and perspectives.

As she’s dissecting the very modern and American Rachel in one scene, she tells the young woman, “I chose to raise a family. For me, it was a privilege. But you might think it’s old-fashioned.” There’s a divide between Eleanor and Rachel, and its width and breadth are greater than the ocean that stretches between both countries.

As important as Eleanor’s disapproval is to the film’s story, and as much as I liked Yeoh’s portrayal of the family matriarch, I preferred the film’s subtler infusions of Asian culture.

Late in the movie, for instance, Eleanor and Rachel sit down to play Mahjong, and there’s a sense that the game is thematically significant in some way. One of the things I liked about “Crazy Rich Asians,” though, is how it didn’t stop to explain what the significance was.

These bits and pieces of culture simply exist within the context of the film. They portray the world in which the movie is set without laying it bare.

All this said, few people are seeing “Crazy Rich Asians” to be culturally enriched. Rather, they’re going for the glitz, glamour and romance.

I’ll get the easy stuff out of the way first. “Crazy Rich Asians” is a drop-dead gorgeous film, as it needed to be. From Singapore’s dazzling skyline to mansions that serve as monuments to the owner’s insane wealth, there’s rarely a moment when the film isn’t awash with opulence.

Then there are the wall-to-wall parties, which will put any bridal shower, or frat house soiree, you’ve attended to utter shame. I did wonder, though, how many months of planning and how much staff each of these outrageous shindigs required.

No matter; it seems there’s a party around every corner. In a scene set in an airport hangar, there’s more rich food on display for the pre-flight get together (i.e. luggage loading party) than I’ve seen at a Ryan’s buffet.

All the extravagant merrymaking gave the filmmakers a reason to fill the screen with pretty people draped in beautiful clothing and offered the set designers an excuse to let their imaginations run wild. It must have been exhaustive work, but the results are often jaw-dropping.

I’ll never forget the stunning image of a bride dressed in an elegant bridal gown wading through a river that flowed down the aisle of the church in which she was being married, lights held by her guests dancing around her. It’s an overly indulgent shot, but that’s kind of the point of the movie.

It’s disappointing, then, that this painstakingly built world serves a story that barely rises above the typical American rom-com. In a nutshell, the movie follows Nick and Rachel as they travel to Singapore to attend the wedding of his best friend. Once there, Rachel discovers that Nick is “crazy rich” and in line to inherit a business empire. Hijinks and drama ensue.

While I admire how “Crazy Rich Asians” avoids some of the pitfalls of many American romantic comedies, such as the curious need to inject otherwise sweet stories with vulgarity and over-the-top slapstick, I winced every time it fell headlong into another pit.

All the romantic comedy tropes are on painful display, including the last-minute dramatic crisis and the unlikely resolution in the final scene. When the credits started to roll, all I could think was, “Yeah, right. That would work.”

At least the dialog elevates the film above tripe like “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve.” Working from the Kevin Kwan novel of the same name, screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim filled “Crazy Rich Asians” with clever, humorous nuggets like this:

Rachel: So, your family is rich?

Nick: We’re comfortable.

Rachel: That’s exactly what a super-rich person would say!

And this:

Rachel: You should have told me you were the Prince William of Asia.

Nick: That’s ridiculous. I’m much more of a Harry.

The performances, especially Constance Wu’s fish-out-of-water turn as Rachel, are another pleasure.

“Crazy Rich Asians” is far from perfect, but it is sufficiently entertaining. Its visual splendor makes it worth a trip to a theater.

The things I will remember the most, though, are those captivating glimpses into a world about which I know so little. Moments like those are what make movies magical.