Before it whisks you off on the sunniest, most extravagant Singaporean holiday imaginable, “Crazy Rich Asians” begins on a curiously dark and stormy night.
When Eleanor Young (a mesmerizing Michelle Yeoh) arrives dripping wet at an exclusive London hotel, the snob at the front desk declines her booking and advises her to stay elsewhere (“May I suggest Chinatown?”). He’s hopelessly unaware that he’s dealing with one of the world’s wealthiest families, or that the tables will soon be satisfyingly turned. In this juicily poised score-settler of a movie, the crime of underestimating an opponent is always met with a swift, humiliating comeuppance.
The opening sequence — notably, the first and last time a white actor appears on-screen — makes a nice teaser for the movie itself. Directed with an exuberantly personal touch by Jon M. Chu from a spirited if uneven script by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 international bestseller is many things: a tour de force of lifestyle pornography; a slick, enjoyable divertissement; a surprisingly trenchant study of class and cultural difference. Most of all, it’s a concerted effort by a long-neglected Hollywood minority to storm the big-studio citadel and possibly even beat it at its own game.
It’s been more than a decade since “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the last major studio pictures to feature all-Asian ensembles, and a full quarter-century since “The Joy Luck Club,” the last such production to grapple with the puzzle of contemporary Asian American identity. Those ridiculous statistics have saddled “Crazy Rich Asians” with equally ridiculous expectations; that future Asian-led projects are riding on this movie’s box-office success makes it awfully hard not to root for.
But it’s even harder not to root against a system predicated on such offensive conditions in the first place. The commercial triumph of recent movies as varied and culturally specific as “Black Panther,” “Get Out,” “Hidden Figures” and “Coco” may have shattered boundaries, but what really needs shattering is the notion that people of color should have to earn the right to see themselves depicted in the first place. In a better world, “Crazy Rich Asians” wouldn’t have to prove or represent anything but itself. But here we are.
That pressure may at least partly explain the script’s anxious, eager-to-please quality, which feels both touchingly awkward and wholly appropriate to the giddy aspirational fairy tale it’s selling. The film’s heroine is not the formidable Eleanor but rather the sweet, guileless Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a New York economics professor who has been dating Eleanor’s dreamily handsome son, Nick (Henry Golding). Due back in Singapore for the wedding of his best friend, Colin (Chris Pang), Nick is serious enough about Rachel that he invites her to come and meet his family, whom he’s been fairly tight-lipped about until now. It’s not until she finds herself flying first class that Rachel begins to guess why that might be the case.
“We’re comfortable,” Nick admits. But it falls to Rachel’s quirky college pal Goh Peik Lin (a terrific Awkwafina) to inform her that she’s basically dating a Rockefeller. A Singapore local, Peik Lin breathlessly recaps how the Youngs and other families left China generations ago for this small island nation and transformed it into a cosmopolitan wonderland. Flaunting their Oxford degrees and living in tropical-baronial splendor, these billionaire clans sneer at mainland China and its nouveau riche vulgarians. But they reserve a special contempt for Americans, with their selfish insistence on individualism over family loyalty.
In these old-moneyed enclaves, an Asian American career woman like Rachel isn’t just a fish out of water, to borrow one of the movie’s nastier later images; she’s a fish in a Darwinian shark tank. Rachel is regarded as little more than a gold-digger by Nick’s boorish buddies, smirking aunties and beautiful ex-girlfriend (Jing Lusi). She also gets a polite but frosty greeting from Eleanor, who’s determined to keep her son from marrying someone so ill equipped to shoulder the Young dynasty.
The most important judgment will be rendered by Nick’s grandmother, a smiling, steel-willed matriarch played by the veteran Chinese American actress Lisa Lu (in a moving tip of the hat to “The Joy Luck Club”). But Rachel has her allies among Nick’s family, too, including his glamorous cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), who lends a sympathetic ear when she isn’t off buying up Parisian couture, and the equally style-conscious Oliver (Nico Santos), who supplies a dizzying stream of gossip, encouragement and fashion tips.
Director Chu makes a similarly energetic emcee, smoothly orchestrating a dizzying flow of narrative and visual traffic, and sensibly not even trying to avoid the trap of reveling in what he satirizes (the massages! the floating bachelor parties! the seven-figure earrings!). Best known until now for cranking out “G.I. Joe” and “Now You See Me” sequels, Chu has an exquisite eye for color and movement (check out his work on “Step Up 2 the Streets”) that comes vibrantly into play here.
He and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul nail the porcelain elegance and the gilded vulgarity that often define obscene wealth, whether they’re framing the lovely green-walled interiors of the Young family homestead or turning a gaudy wedding reception into a Baz Luhrmann hallucination.
All this color-coordinated razzle-dazzle actively improves on the book, insofar as staring at luxury brands is vastly preferable to reading a laundry list of those brands in print. The movie has a harder time managing the novel’s narrative bloat and density: Juggling enough material to sustain a 10-episode series, the script reduces several of Kwan’s supporting characters to one note apiece, from the tepid melodrama of Astrid’s crumbling marriage to the flat-footed farce of Nick’s movie-director cousin Alistair (Remy Hii) and his tacky starlet girlfriend (Fiona Xie).
Some of the ensemble’s most recognizable funnymen are relegated to a quick scene or two, including Ronny Chieng (“The Daily Show”) as a status-conscious Hong Kong cousin, Jimmy O. Yang (“Silicon Valley”) as a spoiled-rotten bachelor, Ken Jeong as Peik Lin’s goofy dad. There’s a strained, exaggerated feel to much of the comedy overall, as if the filmmakers were nervous about not everyone getting the joke or uncertain of their audience; hence one character actually explaining what she means when she calls someone else “a banana.”
For all this, the dramatic center holds, rather beautifully. Wu, a memorable tiger-mom spitfire on “Fresh Off the Boat,” makes a complete reversal here as a sympathetic Lizzie Bennet-like heroine who schemes only in self-defense. Golding, meanwhile, incarnates the screen charisma of a young Tyrone Power; he has only to flash his mega-watt smile to slip a scene into his immaculately tailored pocket. The power of that smile may partly explain why the filmmakers chose this biracial British Malaysian actor to play a Chinese Singaporean — a decision that has riled casting purists and suggests just how many representational burdens this movie will be forced to bear.
It’s silly to think that any one picture could ever stand in for a place, a subject, a realm of experience as vast and intricate as the Asian continent and its countless diasporas. But like all pioneering efforts, and like any movie about the pleasures of the aristocracy, “Crazy Rich Asians” will inevitably be criticized for what it isn’t and never attempted to be. You can probably expect a think-piece excoriating Chu for not making his generation’s “Bicycle Thieves.” Still others may take him to task for recycling a standard Cinderella fantasy, as if a movie were no more than the sum of its most basic narrative parts.
Images and ideas matter; so do sounds and smells, textures and politics. I can’t remember the last time Hollywood produced a Cinderella fantasy with a mouth-watering foodie montage at an open-air hawker market, or a makeover sequence scored to a Cantopop cover of “Material Girl.” These may be incidental pleasures, but they’re no less significant than the movie’s distinct emphasis on family, as we see when the Youngs gather to make dumplings together, in a scene that brings the central dramatic tension painfully to the fore. (Between this and Pixar’s “Bao,” it’s been quite a summer for won-ton cruelty.)
The dumpling scene is one of several in which Wu and Yeoh politely lock horns, and as much as your sympathies may veer toward Rachel, you can’t help but hang on Eleanor’s every word. In a crisp, authoritative, sometimes startlingly vulnerable performance that never lapses into dragon-lady stereotype, Yeoh brilliantly articulates the unique relationship between Asian parents and their children, the intricate chain of love, guilt, devotion and sacrifice that binds them for eternity.
For those parents and children in the audience, her words may trigger a curious, even paradoxical sensation. Some of us have been struggling with these sentiments all our lives. How are we only now hearing them for the first time?
‘Crazy Rich Asians’
(In English, Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin and Malay with English subtitles)
Rating: PG-13, for some suggestive content and language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: In general release (starts Aug. 15)