Under eastern skies
The title of director Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians can be misleading; the movie isn’t about crazy Asians who are rich, it’s about Asians who are “crazy rich,” meaning a billion dollars or so beyond “filthy rich.” That’s the Young family of Singapore, and when scion Nick (BBC-TV host Henry Golding, in his acting debut) invites his Asian-American girlfriend Rachel (Constance Wu) home to meet the family at his best friend’s wedding, the poor woman doesn’t know what she’s in for. Nick hasn’t told her much about his background, and she’s expecting a quiet summer in his humble family home, enjoying the local color and exploring her ancestral roots.
Her first hint comes on the plane, when she and Nick are obsequiously ushered into their private suite—not just a room, mind you, but a suite. She asks Nick exactly how rich his people are. “We’re comfortable,” he says.
Rachel gets a clearer picture when she meets up with her old college chum Peik (Awkwafina, in a sprightly performance that provides another relatable point for Americans, regardless of ethnicity). The Youngs, Peik tells her, are not only the richest family in this uncommonly rich city-state, but Nick is its most famously eligible bachelor.
Rachel and Nick have been dating for a year, and she’s cautiously hopeful that a proposal is in the offing. Now, as she beholds the family’s digs—no humble home, but a palace inspired, one of Nick’s aunts tells her, by Versailles and “Donald Trump’s bathroom”—the truth dawns: She’s not here to “meet” Nick’s relatives, but to be vetted by a financial royal family. Can she measure up? Can love find a way?
She gets her answer to the first question from Nick’s imperious mother (Michelle Yeoh), who tells her, with passive-aggressive kindness that masks a chilling hauteur, that she will “never be enough.” Yeoh gives a performance of breathtaking subtlety in a small role that she makes seem like a lead; it’s the kind of work for which the term “best supporting actress” was invented. The second question—spoiler alert!—involves that messiest of clichés of second-rate rom-coms, an airplane full of applauding strangers. It’s an ending that, one hopes, was invented by screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim rather than coming from Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel.
Such a groan-worthy wrap-up might have sunk the movie, but Crazy Rich Asians’ reservoir of good will is enough to carry us over that late bump in the road. Chu, whose record has been uneven to say the least (Step Up 3D, Jem and the Holograms) rises unexpectedly to the occasion, giving us an eye-filling tour of Singapore’s upper crust while getting strong performances from his large ensemble. Golding, Wu, Awkwafina and Yeoh may be the standouts, but they’re just the surface of a pretty deep well of talent.
I can’t resist quoting a favorite line. It comes from Ken Jeong as Peik’s father, who admonishes his brood of children at the dinner table, “Eat your food. There are children starving in America.”