Part classic Hollywood screwball comedy about the wealthy (think The Philadelphia Story), part Jane Austen novel about the intersection of class and romance (think Pride and Prejudice), and part Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy from the 2000s (all best forgotten), Crazy Rich Asians’ most distinctive characteristic might be that it’s set in Singapore and features an all-Asian cast. It’s at once deeply formulaic and—in terms of the faces and places we usually see on movie screens in the West—refreshingly unfamiliar.
Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu, a New York economics professor blissfully in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding). When Nick is invited back to Singapore to be the best man in his childhood friend’s wedding, he invites Rachel to meet his family for the first time. What he hasn’t told her is that they’re among the richest families in the small island nation. And while they may be at the forefront of the world economy, his family is still bound to matriarchal tradition when it comes to love and marriage. In short meeting the parents—the mother in particular—won’t be easy.
Which brings us to Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor, Nick’s mother. Eleanor is regal, reserved, and subtly dismissive of Rachel. (“Pursuing one’s passion—how American,” she says in response to hearing of Rachel’s career.) Having sacrificed her own intellectual pursuits to serve her husband’s business ambitions, Eleanor is now looking for a subservient young woman from Singapore to do the same for Nick. Gradually, after much romantic-comedy shenanigans, it becomes clear that Nick must make a choice: stay in New York with Rachel and disown his family or move to Singapore without her and take over the lucrative family empire.
Wu and Golding are pleasant enough, but the chasm between their performances and Yeoh’s is hard to deny. While they deliver their lines on beat and with a smile, she’s making twice the impact simply by tilting her head or holding her breath. Yeoh comes to dominate the film so wholly, as a matter of fact, that the climax turns on Eleanor more than it does the central couple. You may not notice, at first, that while Eleanor’s objections have been addressed, the central dilemma of the film remains unresolved when the credits roll. In the end, the most meaningful relationship isn’t that of Rachel and Nick, but Rachel and her potential mother-in-law (which may be another culturally distinctive mark that the movie puts on the romantic-comedy genre).
Less subtle than Yeoh, yet providing crucial comic relief, is Awkwafina as Peik Lin Goh, Rachel’s friend from college, who has since moved back to Singapore. With the low, scratchy voice of Ursula from The Little Mermaid and perfect comic timing (her encounter with the bodyguards at the Young estate is priceless) Awkwafina doesn’t need the garish blond wig and outlandish outfits she sports to make an impression. Her material and delivery are enough.
A handful of director John M. Chu’s previous films employ a lot of movement—two Step Up movies, a Justin Bieber documentary—so it makes sense that Crazy Rich Asians is a fairly fluid visual experience. The camera pushes in on crucial sequences, including during an opulent wedding in which the water trickles down the center aisle to create the impression of a flowing stream, and often circles around the characters during the movie’s many conversations, which take place in plush, luxurious spaces. As an aesthetic element, Crazy Rich Asians puts wealth at the forefront, whereas the classic Hollywood romantic comedies left it casually in the background.
Crazy Rich Asians is mostly a celebration of conspicuous consumption, then, yet wealth serves an additional purpose on one occasion. There is a prologue in which Eleanor, with Nick as a little boy, is turned away at a London luxury hotel because of her race. In a triumphant twist, she informs the manager that her husband has recently bought the place. Economic power is flexed, in this instance, in pursuit of racial equality. And, in a way, something similar would be taking place if Crazy Rich Asians is a hit. That’s enough—despite any reservations about formula I might have—for me to hope that it is one.