Eleanor Young is soaked. It’s raining cats, dogs and who knows whatever other animals in London, and all this cordial but confident woman wants to do is check into her hotel and tuck her kids in for the night. But the hotel front desk staff is refusing to honor her reservation, probably assuming she was Caucasian because of her English name when they spoke to her over the phone. But Eleanor treads back outside into the rapid-fire rain, makes a phone call and marches back in through the lobby doors, undeterred by the hotel staff’s blatant racism. It’s been less than five minutes into “Crazy Rich Asians” and already the film has done something rare and exemplary: it has made us empathize with its antagonist before we even get to meet our hero.
Based on the novel by Kevin Kwan, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a film that both challenges assumptions while showcasing characters whose lives are thwarted by assumption. It’s basic “posh guy introduces small town girl into high society” plot makes it a distant cousin of “Pretty Woman, “Notting Hill” and even “Cinderella.” And its characters, all likable and some more developed than others, are really just your typical rom-com archetypes: the stoic leading man, the quirky best friend, the unforgiving elder and the spoiled, wicked step-cousins. But even with these common story inspirations in play, “Crazy Rich Asians” aspires and becomes something wonderful, with palpable, emotional tenderness and a rigid belief held by the cast and crew that what they’re building together is truly important and special.
After meeting Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), we’re introduced to Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), the youngest member of NYU’s economics faculty and the loving sweetheart of the well-groomed Nick Young (Henry Golding). Rachel’s smart, beautiful and a natural Doyle Brunson at the poker table. She’s the kind of woman who regular parents would murder and maim just to get their child a shot at marrying. But that’s not the case in Singapore, where Nick’s family are like more likable and much more rich eastern versions of the Trump family. And when Rachel travels with Nick to his homeland, she has to navigate a tricky path of carefully-chosen phrases and gestures as to not offend her potential, future in-laws.
It’s a daunting task that Rachel carries on her own. There are some new friends who offer their graces, like Astrid (Gemma Chan), Nick’s posh but down-to-earth cousin. And there are familiar faces like Rachel’s old chum Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), whom Rachel finds refuge with as an outsider. But her warm hugs are returned with Eleanor’s cold shoulders, the burden of being in Nick Young’s circle, let alone being at the center of it, feels too much a burden to bear.
It’s a captivating story with mature meditations on relationships, family and identity. Eleanor’s reasons for disliking Rachel stem not from her lack of money but her overabundance of ambition. Rachel could be famous Malaysian heiress or the daughter of a single mother on the streets and it wouldn’t matter anymore to Eleanor; the fact that Rachel hasn’t sacrificed her career yet is the true mark of shame in auntie Eleanor’s eyes. Nick’s extended friends and family seem to be equally hostile. The girl cousins ostracize Rachel through expertly-choreographed gossip, and his bros try to paint the relationship as some epic lose-lose scenario where the economic fate of a dozen of countries lie in the romantic on-goings of Rachel and Nick. But as the script stumbles into cliches in its final act, they still feel clever enough to make us forget we’ve seen these plot devices hundreds of times before.
Wu is divine as Rachel. effortlessly radiating her character’s endearing wit and optimism, as well as magnificently portraying the more difficult emotional evolution that comes from being an outsider even among your own kind. Yeoh is fierce as Ellen, an elegant tiger standing on its rear paws, quiet but waiting to attack. Awkwafina’s character is clearly inspired by stereotypes of pop culture obsessed-Asians but never is reduced to just that, managing to be both the most likable and the most wise character of the film. Henry Golding does his best as Nick, but unfortunately his character lacks too much substance for his performance to have an impact. Young is often described as a dream guy, but if you give him no characteristics or flaws that make him feel human, its impossible to connect with him in reality. And Astrid has the opposite problem: the character is fascinating, but Gemma Chan isn’t able to conjure whatever magic it was that made her Young’s favorite cousin in the first place.
Even if rom-coms or fish out of water stories aren’t you’re thing, the breathtaking visuals of “Crazy Rich Asians” are worth the ticket price alone. The film’s sparkling Singapore lights and dazzling Malaysian colors will probably generate an extra $50 million or so in tourism over the next five years. It also helps that “Crazy Rich Asians” has a bellowing, melodic score from Bryan Tyler that feels on par with a John Williams’ number, a cascade of Western-inspired horns playing in perfect harmony with the eastern sunrise . “Crazy Rich Asians” infiltrates each of our senses with an unwavering belief in itself and its mission. The laughs are genuine and the relationships are true, a story that eschews the global impact a small grudge can have, and the joys from realizing the uncontrollable burdens of one’s past are not unforgivable.