Certain movies are better than they need to be. Genre expectations often dictate an audience’s visual appetite. Let’s say that you want to go watch a raunchy comedy like Step Brothers, you probably are not going to watch mind-blowing editing, camera work, and lighting among other technical traits. (Although you are wrong not to expect that! Step Brothers is an unassailable classic that should never be compared to lesser pieces of art.) You also would probably not want to go to Blade Runner 2049 because of the love story. (I’ll save my retort for that review) You probably do not go to any movie for the mind-blowing technical aspects unless it has to do with CGI, because you might not be a wannabe cinephile. (As I am!!) However, there is no better feeling than the one that comes after watching a movie and realizing that the creators went above and beyond on aspects of the film they did not have to. Crazy Rich Asians is one of those flicks, and it is much more than your average romantic comedy.
As you, and probably the rest of the pop culture following populace already knows, Crazy Rich Asians is the first major American Studio film released in the last twenty-five years to feature an all Asian cast. While riskiness of such an investment might have been overblown, especially in Hollywood’s age of inclusion, but this film was a power move. Jon M. Chu’s international and glamorous romantic comedy paid off for all involved. This film currently holds a 74 on Metacritic, a 92 percent critic score and 79 percent user score on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a 7.1 on IMDb. Let’s not forget the twenty-six million dollar opening weekend in early August, along with a current worldwide gross of over 176 million dollars during its theater run. This movie took the world by storm for a while and added to the growing narrative that films about minority groups can not only be a critical success but a commercial one as well.
If you are a naturally skeptical person, you might have made your judgments about this film without seeing it. That is fair up to a certain point. There are some films that the masses go nuts for that are, in truth, not very good. (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen anyone?) Critical response to Crazy Rich Asians probably did not help the skeptical mind. Monica Castillo’s piece for Roger Ebert.com praises the film for its story, characters, technical aspects, and its ultimately inclusive message. That is almost every possible thing to like about a movie! How is that possible? In a piece for the New York Times, A.O. Scott praises the film’s “throw-back” style while also going through almost every aspect of the film with virtually no critique to be found. If you care at all and read either of these reviews, you might have wondered if it was possible for a film (outside of the Star Wars/Indiana Jones universe) to receive such acclaim. While it does not deserve all the praise, Crazy Rich Asians is a film that earns this type of attention.
Jon M. Chu’s rom-com does not reinvent the narrative wheel when it comes to genre convention. It is a typical “chick flick” story with almost every prototype character style that could possibly happen. It also lives up to its name. The way to describe this films aesthetic is one-half crazy and the other half rich. Crazy Rich Asians checks every possible box that you might have when it comes to a romantic comedy. Funny? Check. A relationship that is doomed from the start just to come back together stronger than before in the final twenty minutes? Check. A cast filled with attractive people, along with the token members that are not as physically attractive, but make up for it by having a fun personality? Check. A story that is filled with cliché and fantastical situations that only make sense in a cinematic setting? Ken Jeong? Check. If you are a part of the target demographic, Crazy Rich Asians is a must see. However, it is a film that brings much more to the table than you might think.
You probably heard it somewhere else first, but here it goes, Jon M. Chu is a great director. His ability to tell a stock story is at once stereotypical and subtle, in other words, he knows how to play to his crowd and he understands where and when to take chances. He also has a great eye. The film has a wide variety of angles and points of view along with interesting camera movement. The vision must have been collaborative because Vanja Cernjul’s cinematography makes bold statements that you would expect from a film about Singapore’s mega-rich. Myron Kerstein’s editing only adds effect to every scene, allowing the audience to not only be a fly on the wall but allows them to relate to the events occurring on the screen.
There is one sequence and one scene that stick out as great examples of the visual storytelling of the film. The sequence starts when Rachel Chu (played by Golden Globe-nominated Constance Wu) gets her first look at the wealth of her boyfriend Nick Young’s (played with just the perfect amount of down to Earth touch by Henry Golding) family and their home. A glamorous home filled with hundreds of glamorous people, Rachel starts by almost drinking a bowl of water meant for washing of hands. Nick stops her, and you can clearly see that she is overwhelmed, thanks to the medium shot composed by Cernjul and Chu. Throughout the rest of the sequence, Rachel is thrown into a typical overwhelming party gantlet. She has to meet dozens of new people that she will have to remember in the future. A short tracking shot brilliantly catches the minutia of family party politics, going from one conversation to another and ultimately circling back to Rachel and Nick leaving the conversation. The final aspect of the sequence has a centered closeup of Rachel and Nick staring slightly above the lens of the camera talking to various relatives. The camera does not move at all, and the cuts from one perspective to another make each encounter awkward. This sequence makes a scene that would normally be just another stereotypical rom-com sequence into something special that makes the audience actually get into Rachel’s shoes. The scene will not be spoiled, just know that it is at the wedding.
The acting within Crazy Rich Asians is an interesting amalgamation of performance and character building. While some of the characters are stock, think the crazy family member that is just there for comic relief, there are others that are very rich. Part of that is because of the work Kevin Kwan’s source material, but the other part belongs to the characters. As mentioned earlier, Constance Wu was recently nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy or Musical. The focal point of the film is based on the chemistry that she and Henry Golding have with one another. While the first 40 or so minutes are mixed in this department, the on-screen couple starts to find their groove and cruise to an emotionally satisfying climatic sequence. Awkwafina has received attention for her role as Rachel’s best friend Piek Lin Goh, the main comic relief in the film, but the real attention needs to go towards Michelle Yeoh and Gemma Chan. Michelle Yeoh plays Nick Young’s mother Eleanor. Mrs. Yeoh’s subtle yet explosive touch gives Eleanor a special feel, especially in the one-on-one sequences with Constance Wu. Gemma Chan gives the best performance in the movie, in part of the fact that her character goes through the largest character arc outside of the main plot. Playing Astrid Young Tao, Ms. Chan is a revelation. She inhabits the character as if she does not even have to think about her actions or mannerisms. She has had roles in some big movies in the past, including the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, but this is her true coming out party.
Crazy Rich Asians is not the best romantic comedy of all-time, but it might have the most cinematic quality of any romantic comedy. You could look at it as the Cinderella of the genre. This movie did not have to be as well rounded as it was in all areas. The acting and technical aspects did not have to blow anyone away, but they did anyway. If you happen to have an undying loyalty to rom-coms of all shapes and sizes, check this movie out. If you do not exactly care for rom-coms, but you happen to enjoy watching well-made flicks, give this film a shot. The bottom line is this, in a period where reboots and remakes dominate the market, giving new takes on old stories a shot is never a bad thing. Especially when the filmmaking is of such high quality.
Thanks for reading! Curtis.