As the credits rolled for “Crazy Rich Asians,” I whipped up my phone to take notes of all the things about the movie that made me so giddy, and then it just hit me—we haven’t been talking about Constance Wu enough. Known for her supporting role in indie drama series “EastSiders” and ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat,” Wu is a phenomenal actor, and for her to have bagged a sans-stereotype top-billing gig in Jon M. Chu’s (“Now You See Me 2,” 2016) latest isn’t just impressive; it’s quite overdue. While she’s quite the driving force of this romantic comedy though, there’s a whole lot more the film overall gets right. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up a bit.
Having someone like Chu—who’s known mostly for helming sequels to films like the “G. I. Joe” and “Step Up” series, among other things—as the director might look troubling on paper, but just hear me out, because, with “Crazy Rich Asians,” he seems to have come up with his first bona fide success. Based on the first in novelist Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich” trilogy, the film balances sharp cultural commentary and astonishingly fresh direction with the kind of classic, escapist tone that a lot of filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to use in their recent stabs at romance.
Now the film could have been a lot more than what it is-its narrative, for one, has real discriminatory and privilege problems that, while some readers say Kwan’s source material was aware of, this movie is only slightly shaky on. There’s also a subplot on a marriage thrown into severe dysfunction on account of a toxic male ego that isn’t necessarily given its individual space. While these issues aren’t entirely unfounded, “Crazy Rich Asians” still succeeds at what it wanted to be—a highly entertaining movie about impossibly gorgeous people in love, championing Asian-American representation in the spectrum of an all-punches-pulled experience of pure Hollywood glitz.
Boasting romance, a whole lot of well-timed humor, and the escapist ambition reminiscent of movies like “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton” and “Notting Hill,” “Crazy Rich Asians” is a mad, mad rollercoaster, but it’s not without purpose. Intricately layered within the film’s narrative are sociopolitical commentaries on tribalism and classism with a balance that’s both impressive and, mostly, successful. A somewhat painful scene in the movie’s first half centers around a conversation between Nick (Henry Golding) and his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). The latter’s disapproval of Rachel becomes increasingly apparent in the minutes that pass as she disdainfully calls her a “Chinese-American.”
Ironically, considering the controversies surrounding the casting of actors Golding and Sonoya Mizuno, the whole exchange teeters into an accidental satire of its pre-production woes. Tying into its opening scene—the Young family being turned away from an upscale hotel in London by an all-White managerial staff—it brings forth a disturbingly real problem of the third-culture identity crisis. You’ll never be “enough,” as Eleanor facetiously states to Rachel, to be the ethnicity you identify as, but you aren’t white enough (read: really just white) to reconcile with the predominantly white country you’ve lived all your life in either.
Sure, the fact that the commentary isn’t explored any further can leave some dissatisfied-but that’s not the point. “Crazy Rich Asians” is a big, gorgeously escapist romance with larger-than-life set-pieces, towering performances by Wu, Awkwafina, and Yeoh, and a whole lot of subtext that throws heavy shade at the dangerous obsession many have with racial purity. And even if you completely miss out on it, it’s a great time at the movies and the kind of comfort food that’s both guilt-free and unabashedly entertaining.
On the surface, “Crazy Rich Asians” isn’t anything more than an escapist destination-wedding romantic-comedy. Look beyond the cover, however, and you’ll find a substantial commentary on the harmful side-effects of tribalism, the third-culture identity, and the double-edged sword it holds over the people who are in the middle of it all. Then again, it’s the best kind of mainstream rom-com you can have, and — if nothing else — it’s crazy rich on non-stop entertainment. Highly recommended.