I enjoyed this picture, but I wanted so much more out of it. Crazy Rich Asians is a punchy little comedy that struts with personality, empathy and more to say than you’d expect. But in spite of gorgeous visuals and winning performances, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a remake of Meet The Parents that was too reluctant to give me the funny business. I’m not saying we needed a “Focker”, but we needed a picture to tap into the hilarity behind futile attempts to please an in-law. Too often, this film stops just short of that.
Rachel (Constance Wu) is a economics professor at NYU, the product of a single mom and all-around immigrant success story. Her boyfriend is Nick (Henry Golding) a charming guy who proposes that she come with him to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. He does so by initially asking if she wants to go “east”; her idea of doing so is going to Queens, not venturing half-way around the world.
But this isn’t just some dream jet-set to an awe-inspiring locale. On the ensuing first-class flight, Nick admits that he comes from tremendous wealth (he says, they’re “comfortable”, which is how my rich friends in Scottsdale used to describe themselves). Even if Nick then spent all night talking about his wealth, he’d still be understating the Scrooge McDuck-levels of money his family has.
His family runs a wealthy real estate business that spans numerous Asian countries (and for some reason New Mexico) and more money than respect than God, Muhammad and Buddha combined. They throw lavish parties and wear flashy clothing to hides their brutal jealousy and single-minded adherence to culture and tradition. You can insert your English 101-line about “ugly people hiding behind beautiful masks” here.
Being familiar with none of these conventions leaves Rachel in an absurdly tepid position to make a first impression to Nick’s family. That includes Nick’s mom Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who looks at her potential daughter-in-law with a disgust that’s only hidden by the sheer disbelief that such an unrefined woman be brought into the house.
So the ensuing culture clash happens, with Rachel trying to stay afloat whilst being judged by presumably every man and woman in Singapore. The only exceptions are her college best bud Goh Peik (Awkafina), who lives in Singapore with her family and helps class up her friend before parties and weddings. Not that the attempt at an Asian Cinderella story works, as Rachel becomes the target of vicious barbs and even a disgusting moment when a gutted fish is placed on her bed. Did I mention these people bring out the “crazy” in Crazy Rich?
That’s portrayed well by the actors and directed with finesse by Jon M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation), but you get the sense that Crazy Rich Asians leaves laughs and drama on the table by rushing too quickly into the parties and rich people problems. A subplot involving Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her husband Michael (Pierre Png) is entirely pointless and eats up running time that could’ve been used to fill out the relationships between Rachel, Eleanor and Nick.
That’s not me just being Mr. Nit-picky Film Critic here; there’s a tendency of Crazy Rich Asians to not fully explore plot points it could’ve while expounding on others that ultimately go nowhere. From a personality standpoint, Rachel doesn’t give these rich snobs much reason to dislike her, turning many of these scenes into awkward moments where we’re supposed to pity the character because some people are giving her dirty looks. This also causes Wu to give a performance that’s a lot blander than it should’ve been, although I think she was hampered by a flat script.
A better screenplay would’ve played up Rachel’s outsider status, perhaps making her a fully integrated American who speaks no Chinese and has no knowledge of any traditions. You can see that the movie wants to go that way early on by insinuating that Rachel is sheltered (the Queens comment), but no one thought to pick up on that plot point as the movie goes on, or even give us more background on her character.
I’m also not saying that I wanted this to be turned into an Asian version of Meet the Parents, but more scenes between Eleanor and Rachel that drive home the awkwardness of their relationship would’ve been nicer and made the resolution between them more effective. That probably would’ve given Wu (who is on the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat) more opportunity to show her comedic chops, while giving Yeoh (whose speciality is mainly action and drama) a rare opportunity to tickle our funny bones.
Other tensions between Nick and his family are barely explored, which is a shame because there was some fertile ground to ask questions of pursuing dedication to family or making yourself happy. Instead, we just get a shot of the gutted fish, which made me wonder if the picture was about to take a truly violent turn.
Maybe I’ve just entered the “High Expectations Asian Father” phase of my writing career, but I truly think that this is a B that could’ve been an A+.