Although there are technically still a few days left, the 2018 Hollywood summer movie season has unofficially come to a glittering end with the sumptuous new rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians.” Besides being breathtakingly beautiful and deliciously funny, the movie is groundbreaking: it’s the first studio movie in 25 years to feature an all Asian cast. (The last was “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.)
Based on the global best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the story of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu of the TV series “Fresh off the Boat” and the web series “Eastsiders”), a professor of economics at New York University who has been raised by a single mother. She’s been dating the charming Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding) for a year and she’s delighted when he invites her to fly to Singapore to attend his friend Colin’s wedding and meet his family.
There’s only one problem. Nick has never told Rachel that he’s rich — filthy rich. He’s the heir to a huge fortune and his very traditional Chinese family expect him to return to Singapore, find a rich and well-bred wife and run the family business. Nick’s snobby family and society friends quickly make it clear that Rachel will never be good enough for him.
The opposition to Rachel is led by Nick’s formidable mother, the steely Eleanor (expertly played by Michelle Yeoh of “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Besides her considerable wealth, her troops include her haughty sisters-in-law and her sweetly domineering mother-in-law.
And while Colin supports Nick’s plans to propose to Rachel, the rest of the wedding party, drawn from the spoiled sons and daughters of the Singapore elite, do not approve of Rachel and try to break the couple up. While Nick and Colin are able to escape the raucous bachelor party, Rachel is trapped on a party island with the bride (a vacuous high-fashion model) and her vicious friends. She is subjected to brutal pranks and, more seriously, learns that Nick has failed to tell he about some of his past romances.
Luckily, Rachel rallies some troops of her own: her college friend Goh Peik Lin (played by rapper and actress Awkwafina, who is also heard on the soundtrack), Nick’s gay cousin Oliver T’sein (Nico Santos from NBC’s “Superstore”) and Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chen of “Humans”). In their own way, all three are fighting against the strict rules of the Singapore elite and help Rachel navigate her way through the wedding.
While the ending is never really in doubt, director Jon M. Chu and his skillful cast and crew make the journey delightfully suspenseful. The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim is full of very funny situations and characters, zippy one-liners and genuinely tender moments. Their adaptation of Kwan’s sprawling novel is occasionally clunky. The profusion of underdeveloped minor characters gets confusing; some of them seem to appear only for cheap laughs or because they will be in the inevitable sequel. (The novel is the first book in a trilogy.)
The gorgeous cinematography by Vanja Cernjul is a visual valentine to the people, sights and tastes of Singapore. The cast looks great in splendid shimmering couture by Mary E. Vogt; the city looks amazing; and the shots of food are drool-inducing. But, Cernjul and Chu are also masters of tone, and the movie takes on highly effective surrealistic and satiric overtones when things turn ugly.
The tone is also subtly sustained by Brian Tyler’s wonderful score which combines his own music with rap, pop and jazz standards sung in both English and Mandarin Chinese. Tyler deftly captures the intricate and sometimes jarring soundtrack of contemporary Singapore.
The cast is excellent. Wu and Golding have an appealing chemistry and Golding remains charming even when Nick is being a jerk (he really should have warned Rachel about his family and ex-girlfriends). Yeoh creates a multifaceted and sympathetic villain who can communicate the delicate intricacies of Singapore etiquette with the subtlest of glares and gestures.
In a few strokes, Chen offers a rich portrait of a rich woman whose money has become a cage.
With her blond hair, deft physical comedy and outrageous outfits, Awkwafina (“Ocean’s Eight”) is a giddy delight as Rachel’s guide through the minefields of life among the elite. Ken Jeong (the “Hangover” movies, as well as TV’s “Bob’s Burgers,” “Dr. Ken” and “Community”) shines as Peik Lin’s unpredictable and unconventional father.
But, LGBT audiences may be most interested in the excellent performance of openly gay actor Nico Santos as cousin Oliver. Santos of course brings great warmth, sass and style to Ollie’s relationship with Rachel and Peik Lin, but his fraught relationship with Eleanor and his other “aunties” rounds out the character more fully. His sly intelligence and social instincts can be useful to them in their scheming, but they will never fully acknowledge the gay man in their midst.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a thoroughly delightful movie — funny, moving and a feast for the senses, a perfect outing for the dog days of summer. It’s also a proud milestone for the representation of Asian Americans on the big screen, including a proudly gay character.