Review: 'Crazy Rich Asians' Is a Cultural Groundbreaker Steeped With Familiarity and Cliches

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Despite the expected weekly barrage of summer blockbusters, it’s fairly hard for film writers to resist the culturally significant "Crazy Rich Asians."  The film, directed by John Chu (“Step Up: 3D“)  is the first Hollywood studio film with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s ‘The Joy Luck Club.” That’s 25 years of major studios shunning the Asian-American experience for the bottom line. Enter critically-acclaimed novelist Kevin Kwan.

Earlier this decade Kwan released a popular trilogy of books, “Crazy Rich Asians,” “China Rich Girlfriend,” “Rich People Problems,” which garnered him a spot on Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people’s list. These novels were sprawling, multi-generational takes on the Asian experience in America and abroad. As you might expect, in a  zeitgeist straining for the need of cultural representation in art, Hollywood soon came calling.

Crazy Rich Asians” is the first cinematic adaptation of Kwan’s novels, a contemporary romantic comedy, based on his own childhood and which follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she travels to Singapore to meet boyfriend Nick’s (Henry Golding) disapproving family. Of course, she has no idea what she’s in for, as she realizes the full extent of Nick’s wealth and the distance her family tries to impose on less privileged people like herself. 

The cast is uniformly great. Nick's friends in Singapore, Colin (Chris Pang) and openly gay fashionista Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) support his decision to pop the question to Rachel but not without Nick’s mom Eleanor (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s Michelle Yeoh, always great), leading the pushback against her son marrying her. Good thing Astrid Leong-Teo (Gemma Chan), Nick’s cousin, takes Rachel's side, she has clout within the family despite having to deal with her own issues at home with a cheating husband. 

However, the movie's scene-stealer is Goh Peik Lin, played by rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina, Rachel's old college friend that also happens to live in Singapore. a rambunctiously colorful and neurotic character indeed. Mostly known to American audiences for her small but memorable turn in "Ocean’s 8," the actress livens up the film with her supporting turn because she brings newfound depth and originality to her role. The same can't be said of Pang who, rather too tamely, underplays his part as the Romeo of the story. However, his counterpart Wu nails her role down pat. The 36-year-old actress, best known as Kathy on the web series "EastSiders" and also as Jessica in the ABC comedy "Fresh Off the Boat," brings a natural and beautiful vibe to Rachel, you do have to wonder why she hasn't been given more roles before at the movies, which only reinforces the importance of this particular film. On a side note; Although she is 36, Wu looks like she could easily pass for under 30. 

As you could acknowledge, "Crazy Rich Asians" is with a heavy dose of Singaporean privilege and the kind of generic plot that would have been easily dismissed by critics if it weren't for the importance surrounding the film's casting. 

The characters depicted aren't fully sketched either, preventing any humanism to filter through the screen. Screenwriters  Peter Chiarelli and Adele Li would rather concentrate on the spectacle of it all, the escapism if you will, but get knocked down by strained attempts at lazy jokes and a romantic melodrama that never sizzles. The word 'Crazy' might be in its title but the film sure could have used a little more of it instead of playing it this safe.

You do have to give credit to director Chu for at least trying to right some of the wrongs in the script, he shows a real knack for the visual with colorfully, and culturally, vibrant images that sometimes feel like they are popping off the screen. The scenes that take place on the streets of Singapore, where multiple traditions and backgrounds clash in a country filled with severe economic inequality, feel fresh and vitalized by the unknown. 

However, there isn't enough of that in the film. Instead of basking deeply into the traditions of his native country, Chu would rather go for an Americanized version of an Asian story. The narrative core chosen to tell the story, although based on author Kwan's luscious, award-winning vision, is a conventional one. To say Chu's film is groundbreaking for what’s on paper would be an understatement, but the story itself is rather antiquated. [C+]