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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Crazy Rich Asians movie review: a Golden Age of Hollywood romance with an overdue fresh twist

Crazy Rich Asians green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
An opulent, juicy, splendidly silly, tears-of-joy spectacle reminiscent of the escapist fluff of 1930s Hollywood… yet also a romantic fantasy that a progressive, feminist gal can actually feel good about.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women, and for more diverse stories
I’m “biast” (con): generally not a fan of romantic comedy
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

I can’t believe it’s taken Hollywood so long to make a movie like this one again!

I’m talking, of course, about opulent, juicy, splendidly silly, tears-of-joy spectacles. Like the ones that got everyone through the Great Depression, all posh people in ballgowns and tuxedoes dripping diamonds, guzzling champagne, and falling madly in love while dancing. (There may have also been Marx Brothers.) You know, decadent distractions from hard times in a troubled world that may or may not be descending in fascism and foreboding even harsher times to come. We’ve been desperate for such happy, escapist fluff for a long time now. Maybe we can’t afford to get that weird lump checked out because paying for the health-insurance premiums means there’s nothing left for the copay and deductible. Maybe we’ve put off buying a house and having kids because we’re drowning in college-loan debt. But hey, we can forget it all for a couple of hours at the movies. Or we could if we had some movies about smart, stylish, beautiful people in love and partying like money means nothing to them, because money means nothing to them.

They could have just called it Crazy Gorgeous Asians, amirite?

They could have just called it Crazy Gorgeous Asians, amirite?

And now we do with Crazy Rich Asians. Sure, Henry Golding and Gemma Chan may be ridiculously physically attractive human beings, but have you seen how their characters in this movie never have to stop and think for a minute about which credit card is least likely to get declined? So hot.

(Crazy Rich Asians is, you may have heard, also the first Hollywood film in a quarter of a century — since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club — to feature a predominantly Asian cast. That’s just enragingly blinkered and short-sighted, and perfectly emblematic of the shocking dearth of imagination in the supposed “dream factory” of the studios. Do better, The Movies. You’re embarrassing yourself.)

Anyway, when her boyfriend of the past year takes her home for a friend’s wedding, New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu: Torchwood, Sound of My Voice) discovers that Nick Young (newcomer* Golding) is in fact the Prince William — “more like Harry,” he demurs modestly — of Singapore. His family is old money in a new-money town, the real-estate developers who transformed the island city-state into the playground for the rich and fabulous it is now. And we will get the grand tour of it along with Rachel as she navigates both this new knowledge about her beloved and his large and mostly very conservative family, including Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Morgan), who has been expecting Nick to come back from his sojourn in America ready to take over the family business, and most certainly not with a working-class colonial tagalong, either.

Grandma (Lisa Lu) and Astrid: the badass ladies of the Young family.

Grandma (Lisa Lu) and Astrid: the badass ladies of the Young family.

It’s all almost exactly like Fifty Shades of Grey except that Nick isn’t a sociopath and Rachel isn’t an innocent naif: she’s a brilliant NYU professor of economics, an actual adult doing important and prestigious work who doesn’t need Nick’s money or help in her career. Also her career doesn’t define her or limit her, and it hasn’t messed up her life, as Hollywood so often seems to think a career does to a woman. More rom-com heroines like Rachel, please.

This is a romantic fantasy that a progressive, feminist gal can actually feel good about. Including also because:

1) It’s not stupid artificial nonsense that causes conflict between the couple but variations on authentic relationship roadblocks, like family expectations and differing life paths.

2) There’s a whole subplot about the awesome power of single mothers like Rachel’s mom, Kerry (Kheng Hua Tan).

3) Nick is shown to have warm and solid relationships with women that aren’t romantic ones, as with his cousin Astrid (Chan: “Revolting Rhymes”, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), who is terrific and just the bestest new pal for Rachel. *sigh*

4) There are so many different kinds of women here, most entertainingly Rachel’s old college roommate, Peik (a hilarious Awkwafina: Ocean’s Eight, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising), who has sass and delight to spare for the unexpected rabbit hole of luxury that Rachel has fallen into.

I want Peik as my wingwoman. And I also want those slice-o’-citrus throw pillows.

I want Peik as my wingwoman. And I also want those slice-o’-citrus throw pillows.

5) Female-gazing! Director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2, Jem and the Holograms) may be a dude — and he doesn’t seem to be gay (he’s married to a woman, at least) — but he knows how to deliver some hot shirtless-guy action (even if it must remain disappointingly PG-friendly). More of the straight male directors who dominate Hollywood need to learn about this.

Did I mention Crazy Rich Asians is funny? There’s gentle wit about dealing with difficult family members, and sly snark about gossip and grapevines, and just a little bit of cattiness about vapid socialites. Did I mention the food porn? Oh my god you will want dumplings immediately after leaving the cinema. (Multiplexes could boost their revenues temporarily by opening noodle concession stands for this movie.) “Are we in a fairy tale?” someone marvels here. Yes, yes we are. A movie this all-around luscious is a dream and a wonder.

*Golding is new to the silver screen, but I used to spend Sunday mornings with him in exotic places when he hosted ‘The Travel Show’ on the BBC’s all-news channel. Shouldn’t have let him get away…

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

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Crazy Rich Asians (2018) | directed by Jon M. Chu
US/Can release: Aug 15 2018
UK/Ire release: Sep 14 2018

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language, moderate sex references)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Bluejay

    I love this movie so damn much. Glad you liked it too!

    I love that the film is rewarding on a lot of different levels. People can and should enjoy it as romantic escapism, but the film also pays attention to the Asian American experience of alienation — not quite American enough for the US, not quite Asian enough for the “motherland,” as Rachel learns. (And it’s a point that couldn’t have been made if Rachel had been rewritten as a white woman, as some potential producers suggested early on; thank god the author and filmmakers stuck to their guns.)

    And while no single film can or should carry the burden of representing ALL varieties of Asian experience — and this film certainly doesn’t — there is nevertheless SO MUCH representation here that it makes me cry to think of it. This film destroys stereotypes with the sheer force of character diversity. Think all Asians are smart and well-behaved? Nah, we got loud, boorish idiots like Bernard too. Think all Asian men are undesirable nerdy misfits like Peik Lin’s brother (an unfortunately pervasive cultural stereotype)? Nope, we got hunks of man-flesh like Nick and a couple others. Think we’re all crazy rich, as the film’s title implies? No, not even that myth holds up; Rachel’s mom is working class, self-made, and has a history of struggling and surviving abuse. The film makes you see the characters as individuals, not as types or spokespeople or representatives. Which just makes me so damn happy.

    Speaking of levels: At this point, the mahjong scene is legendary. Folks can totally understand what’s going on emotionally without any knowledge of the game, but those familiar with mahjong have been pointing out how much the actual playing reflects Rachel and Eleanor’s conflict. (I don’t know the game, but my mom does, and it’s cool how she instantly understood what was happening with the tiles.)

    There’s also an embarrassment of talent here: legends like Michelle Yeoh and Lisa Lu, excellent actors like Constance Wu and Gemma Chan, and newly minted stars like Henry Golding. Remember when we were arguing with idiots who claimed ScarJo needed to be cast as a Japanese character because no Asian star had as much box-office draw? This film incinerates that argument and brushes the ashes off its shoulder. (In 22 days it’s already earned more than twice the domestic gross of Ghost in the Shell in its entire run.) Asians can be stars in Hollywood movies if they’re given the opportunity to be, and audiences will flock to see them. (See also: Searching.)

    Speaking of Gemma Chan: Astrid is perhaps my favorite character from the books, and Chan is absolutely perfect for the role. The little mid-credits scene alludes to an Astrid subplot from the books, which hopefully signals a larger role for her in the inevitable sequel. Bring it on. :-)

  • Bluejay

    Also? The music is so much fun, and it makes a statement too. I had no idea the uplifting final song was a Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” and that the director insisted on using it as a way to reclaim the slur and celebrate Asian pride. Well done. *sniff*

  • Jc Kung

    MaryAnn, I totally agree with you, especially the part about the portrait of women in this film. It’s the women who ogled men in this film. It’s the women who had the best lines. In this film, women stood up for themselves and solved their own problems. Rachel got to sit in front with Princess Intan by chatting with her about micro financing. She also calmly handled those jealous socialites. Astrid dissolved her marriage calmly. Rachel’s mom had the courage to run away from an abusive husband and made a life for herself and her daughter in a strange land.

    IMO, this is a feminist film without shouting from the roof top. Some reviewers called this as a Cinderella story. I couldn’t disagree more. Rachel doesn’t need to be rescued by a Prince Charming. It’s the Prince Charming who looked at her full of admiration (in the church).

  • It’s the women who ogled men in this film.

    That’s true, but there’s also lots of ogling that is done *by the camera* for the audience, and not representing the perspective of any character onscreen. The scene with Astrid’s husband in the shower, he’s the only person in the room. And when Nick has to change his shirt because of the wine spilled all over it, the only other person in the room is his mother, and I think it’s safe to say that while she may appreciate that her son is a handsome man, she’s not swooning over him!

  • Jc Kung

    But Rachel was ogling Nick in their hotel room and said “hubba, hubba”. Even Peik Lin was staring at Nick when he came out of the house at the party. Astrid was also ogling her hubby when he came out of the shower. In most Hollywood films, it’s men ogling women.

  • Yes, that’s all true. But it’s even rarer that the camera ogles men onscreen.

  • dionwr

    Totally agree with you, but wanted to chime in with the observation that Awkwafina, having seen her in this and in “Ocean’s 8,” is absolutely the reincarnation of Joan Blondell. She can throw a wisecrack like a grenade, and is cheerfully wonderful doing so.

  • Tonio Kruger

    All this fuss about Paul Feig’s last movie and yet no one finds it funny that none of Michelle Yeoh’s more famous work — including her recent recurring role in the new Star Trek series — isn’t even mentioned. Nor does anyone find it odd that Constance Wu’s appearance in a long-running hit sitcom gets no shout-out because apparently her supporting role in the miserable American version of Torchwood is considered more important.

  • Danielm80

    You’ve been posting here for a while, so I’m surprised that you don’t remember the conventions MaryAnn uses: Like many critics, she lists the most recent credits of the performers, but she lists only performances that have been reviewed on this site, so she can easily provide a link to her review. If she hasn’t reviewed something—and she doesn’t usually review TV series here—then she doesn’t list the credit, no matter how long Fresh Off the Boat might have been on the air.

  • Bluejay

    and yet no one finds it funny… Nor does anyone find it odd…

    You might want to ask the straightforward question (“MAJ, why did you choose not to credit such-and-such work”) rather than proclaim your disappointment in other readers for not bringing up something that YOU want to mention. After a while, young Indy Jones’ “Everyone’s lost but me” isn’t a good look.

  • no one finds it funny that none of Michelle Yeoh’s more famous work — including her recent recurring role in the new Star Trek series — isn’t even mentioned.

    I didn’t write anything intending to be a retrospective of Yeoh’s career. And I don’t do shout-outs — I link to my previous reviews because that’s good for SEO!

  • Tonio Kruger

    Point taken.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Fair enough.

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