Kevin Kwam’s novel “Crazy Rich Asians,” adapted for the silver screen by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim and directed by Jon M. Chu, gives us a fairy tale Cinderella story set in China as an American-Chinese woman falls in love with a Chinese aristocrat. The film poses the age-old question of “Can love conquer all?” or at least can Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick (Henry Golding) overcome an overbearing, judgmental mother to live happily ever after?
The charismatic Nick Young and the independent Rachel Chu are the epitome of the perfect couple, living their lives in New York City and enjoying this stage of their one-year relationship. Nick, unbeknownst to Rachel, is the son of one of the most prestigious families in China. She accepts an invitation to travel with Nick to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and to meet his entire family, but finds that she is completely unprepared for his way of life and his mothers’ attempts to not just unnerve her, but drive her away. It seems she is too American and not from “the right” family and will “never be enough” for her son.
“Crazy Rich Asians” focuses primarily on the extravagance and gluttony of the upper echelon with a lesser accentuation, unfortunately, on the cultural differences and difficulties of those who are first-generation Americans. It’s a slow start to this romantic film that attempts to find its way into the rom-com category with the help of Awkwafina portraying Rachel’s best friend from college, Peik Lin Goh, and her father played by Ken Jeong, but it never quite gets there. While they do add several laughs, particularly as Peik Lin shows up to a gala event in street clothes only to have labeled garment bags for every occasion in the trunk of her car (a trick I may replicate), the film’s slow pace never hits the accelerator hard enough until 3/4 of the way through the story. At this point, there is finally some interesting interaction between Rachel, Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, portrayed with stoic elegance by Michelle Yeoh, and his grandmother, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) which re-engages us with the main characters.
The superfluous side stories detract from our main characters’ story. Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her sometimes scantily clad hubby Michael (Pierre Png) have marital issues and the juvenile jealousies depicted by ridiculously catty behavior of the women are two non-sequiturs in this film. And I’m still disturbed by the creepy voyeurism of Peik Lin’s brother P.T. (Calvin Wong). While these sub-stories may have been an interesting departure in the book, they aren’t pivotal in driving the story forward.
The story may plod along, but Wu’s performance as Rachel endears us to her immediately as she attempts to wrestle with her upbringing, her education, and her heritage. It is her portrayal that allows us to more readily understand the cultural differences and difficulties associated with being a first-generation American. Working together with Golding, we see a wonderfully natural and genuine chemistry between them. And the spry 91 year-young Lisa Lu gives a credible and intimidating performance as the head matriarch of this wealthy family, aka “Ah Ma,” as she exudes the utmost wisdom and grace, just as you would expect in this story.
One of the unexpected highlights of this film is that it may entice you to book a trip to Singapore. Thanks to the cinematography, you can almost taste the sizzling food served from the gourmet food trucks and smell the aroma of fresh seafood from vendors, or feel like you’re walking down the energetic and colorful outdoor market aisles as you gaze up at the extraordinary architecture, enveloped by the vibrant city center’s heartbeat.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a predictable love story that’s too slow to get off the ground. However, once it hits the road, the elements that create interest such as cultural differences, familial secrets and obligations, the love of a mother and her child , and of course romance, strongly shine through. The added bonus of great costuming and scenery help in forgiving a story-line that finds itself along too many tangential lines.
2 1/2 Stars