In the guise of a bouncy romcom about insanely gorgeous rich kids enjoying their privileges, Crazy Rich Asians is making history: It’s the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast. (The last one: 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.) Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan has said that he wrote the 2013 bestseller on which the film is based “to introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience.” Now the film version, which is shaping up as the comedy to see this summer, is bringing it all home in a hilarious, heartfelt blast that aims to change the state of cultural representation in mainstream, multiplex-friendly cinema.
Constance Wu — she of Fresh Off the Boat fame — brings a burst of star power to the role of Rachel, a Chinese NYU economics professor. Her history-teacher boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), invites her to come to Singapore with him for the wedding of his best friend, Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) to fashion icon Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno, wonderful). Raised by a single mother (Tan Kheng Hua), the humble Rachel has no idea that her beau comes from old money and is colloquially known as the “Prince William of Asia.” To which Nick responds, “That’s ridiculous. I’m much more of a Harry.” She finds herself suddenly immersed in the lifestyles of the region’s rich and famous. And then there’s Nick’s mom Eleanor (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s iconic Michelle Yeoh), who tries to send this commoner packing with the help of her son’s jealous ex hookups.
Bring on the culture clashes! It’s lucky for Rachel that the beauteous Astrid Leong-Teo (Gemma Chan), Nick’s cousin, takes her side … though she has her own problems dealing with a proud husband who doesn’t want any part of her wealth. And thank god for Rachel’s college friend (and the movie’s secret weapon) Goh Peik Lin, played by rapper-turned-actress and a comic tornado that is Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8). Peik Lin won’t allow her best friend to be blocked by Nick’s family; it all leads to a showdown between Rachel and Momma bear that brings out the alpha female in Rachel. “Nasty,” says Peik Lin, in rapt admiration.
It’s a tribute to Yeoh’s layered performance that the film, directed by Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2, the Step Up franchise) from a script by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Li, refuses to demonize Eleanor. Instead, we see that she suffered a similar indignity at the hands of her husband’s mother, Shang Su Yi (Lisa Lu), letting the matriarch practically raise Nick so that he might one day inherit her enormous fortune. It’s the war between the bonds of family vs. the pull of wealth — a global theme across wide borders and cultures — that gives the film heft. But even when the script drifts into moralizing, it’s the emotions that hold sway. Expect tears to flow as easily as laughs. And for giggles, you can’t beat Ken Jeoung as Peik Lin’s new-money dad and Jimmy O. Yang (Silicon Valley) as Bernard, Nick’s raunchy college buddy who throws Colin a bachelor party and sets a new low for toxic masculinity.
The casting of Golding, who’s half-white and half-Malaysian, has raised some hackles, but the appealing chemistry between the actor and Wu adds warmth to all the conspicuous consumption. (Even the Kardashians couldn’t keep up with this.) The film makes sure every extravagant detail pops, and some will probably dismiss this as an orgy for shopaholics, consigned to being a guilty pleasure at best. But why feel guilty around such irresistible fun? And if it’s also a win for representation, so much the better. Kwan wrote two followup novels: China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems. You leave Crazy Rich Asians wanting to see them both made into movies as pointedly entertaining as this one.