It seems as though the summer movie season is crawling to a close. All the superheroes have gone home (for a while, at least), and the bigger budget spectacles are making way for the arthouse hits and critical darlings that define the fall and winter movie seasons. Things are glum right now, but not hopeless.
In this remarkably grey and dreary landscape, muted by the resigned shuffle of countless children headed back to classes, comes the glittery, altogether fabulous "Crazy Rich Asians." And what's more, it has somehow manifested itself not only as the go-to cinematic experience of August but potentially the movie of the entire summer.
"Crazy Rich Asians" is based off the best-selling novel by Singaporean-American novelist Kevin Kwan, which was first published in 2013 and quickly became a sensation. (It spawned two successful follow-ups: 2015's "China Rich Girlfriend" and 2017's "Rich People Problems.") It's the story of Rachel (Constance Wu), who travels with her longtime boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) back to Singapore, where she learns that he is part of one of the country's wealthiest families. (Eep.)
Reading that synopsis, it's hard to find anything particularly revolutionary about its conceit. In fact, it's such a classic construct that it could probably be found in countless novel (romantic and otherwise) through the years, and it bears at least a superficial resemblance to a number of glittery modern romantic comedies (there are traces of everything from "My Fair Lady" to "Splash" in this bubbly concoction). But its plot is not what makes "Crazy Rich Asians" feel so startlingly new.
Firstly, there's the look of it. Director John M. Chu and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul have festooned this movie with all sorts of clever visual signifiers (a sequence that dramatizes the spread of juicy gossip from America to Asia is a tiny narrative triumph in and of itself, like the opening sequence of "Up") and opulent embroidery, especially when the movie moves to Singapore. (It was shot on location.)
The movie is overstuffed with decadence, which is both fun to watch and absolutely works in a narrative sense too because we're able to place ourselves in the (very expensive) shoes of the main character, experience this wealth and extravagance for the first time.
But the thing that makes "Crazy Rich Asians" so powerful, so important and, yes, the movie of the summer, is its cultural specificity. "Crazy Rich Asians" is unapologetically leaning into its culture and the movie is all the better for it. It doesn't compromise one iota; there are several swaths of subtitled dialogue, the filming locations are authentic, and the actors, you can tell, understand everything about that culture and way of life. This is a totally different world, as unique and occasionally as fantastical as Dorothy's trip to Oz.
But it's in this specificity that the movie becomes universal; you see more of yourself in the characters, relate to the relationships and situations, and become even more emotionally invested. (Even if you are a Texas boy in Southern California.) Without the details, which give the movie texture and depth, it would have been just some mildly exotic romantic comedy. With the care and attention obviously lavished on every frame of "Crazy Rich Asians," it brings it closer to something downright profound.
It's hard not to think back to "Black Panther," a movie made about a perpetually overlooked audience that ended up making all of the money. Like "Crazy Rich Asians," there wasn't anything particularly audacious or new about the story of "Black Panther." It was, besides a few political overtones, the same superhero origin story we've seen at least a dozen times in the past ten years, but its lively execution (again, led by a visionary filmmaker) and its cultural specificity are what made it the unstoppable blockbuster it became. This feels similar, with a project that does a great job raising a marginalized cultural group, putting them in the spotlight, and making a terrifically entertaining movie (all at the same time, no less!)
If this is making "Crazy Rich Asians" seem like some self-serious "message" film, well, it's not. It's silly and quirky and ends with one of the all-time cinematic wedding sequences, plus it's got more frothy drama than an all-day marathon of "Housewives" (pick your city). If you go, you'll have a blast.
But you'll also, while watching the parade of couture and custom designs, also get an itchy feeling in the back of your brain -- like you've never quite seen anything like "Crazy Rich Asians." It might be a watershed moment for cinema, like you're a witness to something downright revolutionary. Isn't that cool?
Rachel Chu is happy to accompany her longtime boyfriend, Nick, to his best friend's wedding in Singapore. She's also surprised to learn that Nick's family is extremely wealthy and he's considered one of the country's most eligible bachelors. Thrust into the spotlight, Rachel must now contend with jealous socialites, quirky relatives and something far, far worse -- Nick's disapproving mother. Read More