If you're late to the party, don't feel bad. I was, too.
“Crazy Rich Asians,” the current North American box office champ, turns novelist Kevin Kwan's vicious dissection of the upper echelons of Singapore society into a warmhearted charmer that channels classic Hollywood to soul-tingling effect. This reviewer is here to tell you the romantic dramedy's runaway success is no fluke, and more than warranted. It delivers a splendid time at the movies the likes of which is all too rare from a studio release.
A throwback in the best possible sense, “Crazy Rich” centers on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an NYU economics teacher who accepts an invitation from her dashing boyfriend, fellow professor Nicholas Young (hunky Henry Golding), to accompany him to his native Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding. There are a couple of details he's purposely left out, such as the fact that the nuptials are East Asia's biggest social event of the year.
Plus there's also the matter of Young's obscene wealth.
Sounds like awfully contrived material for your basic disposable rom-com, doesn't it? Director Jon M. Chu (“G.I. Joe Retaliation,” “Now You See Me 2”) initially appears to embrace the genre's formulaic trappings all too willingly. The fast-paced first act depicts how news of Nick's girlfriend eventually reaches Eleanor ((“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's” Michelle Yeoh), his regal, domineering mother. Meanwhile, Rachel's mom Kerry (Kheng Hua Tan), fearful her daughter is unprepared to navigate the minefield in store, warns to brace herself to be sharply criticized, even shunned.
And then the movie reaches Singapore, where it proceeds to open up like a flower. Chu, working from a tightly constructed screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, hits the ground running, as Nick takes a fresh-off-the-plane Rachel to get a taste of Singapore street food. The sequence is energetic, vibrant and awash in succulent food porn. Get ready, Chu appears to say, I'm just getting warmed up.
On the page, Kwan relishes peppering the characters' dialogue with Cantonese and Hokkien phrases, as well as inserting abundant anecdotes about his country's history and social mores as dishy footnotes. Faced with the task of compressing a 500 page-plus novel into screenplay form, Chiarelli and Lim nix most of these details that give the novel its texture, but what's astonishing is how much of its flavor they're able to retain. Theirs is an enviable model of literary adaptation: They distill the source material without losing what makes it special in the process. They're also able to juggle a large cast without causing the viewers to become confused as who's related to whom, no small feat.
And, in crucial ways, the filmmakers have improved on the book. Kwan etches such vivid portraits of his lively supporting characters that it's not until the story forces him to focus on Rachel and Nick that we realize how bland they are by comparison. But Wu and Golding's star quality goes a long way toward preventing their characters from coming across as generic. In Rachel, Wu finds not just a relatable audience surrogate, but a captivating romantic lead that takes on the challenges the movie places in her way while looking nothing short of fabulous. And Golding strikes an ideal balance between his character's suave, debonair confidence with his crippling insecurities. The movie refuses to let him off the hook for not being forthcoming to his girlfriend about his lineage.
But what makes “Crazy Rich” such a keeper is that it refuses to vilify anyone, including the protective, territorial Eleanor. The character comes across as a bit of a harpy on the page, but thanks in large part to Yeoh's layered portrayal, she feels considerably more empathetic on the screen. It also helps that Chiarelli and Lim flesh out her relationship to Nick in a way that allows viewers to see her son's actions from her perspective. In other words, Chu is kinder to these people than Kwan ever was. (Let's face it, there's a mean streak coursing through the book.)
Chu also prevents flashier characters, such as Peik Lin (Awkwafina), Rachel's nouveau riche college friend, her boastful dad (Ken Jeong) and Henry's flamboyant cousin Oliver (Nico Santos), from wearing out their welcome. The film could have groveled for viewers' affections in all kinds of excessive ways, but the director stays the course, shepherding his uniformly solid ensemble cast with an economy of storytelling and an endless generosity of spirit. His affectionate gaze, a quantum leap from his previous credits (though his Justin Bieber documentary, for my money, is actually pretty darn good), brings to mind the work of Vincente Minnelli and Howard Hawks. He's crafted a humane crowd-pleaser that plays like a glammed-up version of Ang Lee's “Father Knows Best” trilogy from the 1990s.
Everything coalesces beautifully during an eye-popping wedding sequence where the depiction of no-expense-spared luxury dwarfs in comparison with the way Rachel, a contemporary Cinderella in a stunning dress, looks at Nick, standing next to the groom as Kina Grannis belts out “Can't Help Falling in Love.” He mouths “I love you,” and it's enough to melt the most hardened heart.
A two-hour running time prompts the filmmakers to go a more predictable route when it comes to handling their love birds' dilemma, but if anything, they've come up with a stronger ending than the novel's rather drawn out resolution. Kwan juggles so many narrative balls in the air that the romance is somewhat diluted. Not so in this infectious winner, which sweeps you off your feet and treats you to what feels like a five-course banquet of laughs and tears, deftly mixing Eastern locales with a thrillingly executed, Western-friendly storyline. If might not reinvent the wheel, but if there's a more satisfying studio release this summer, I've yet to see it. So what are you waiting for? Run, don't walk.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is currently charming the socks off moviegoers in wide release across South Florida.