PLOT An American college professor discovers that her boyfriend is actually one of the richest and most eligible bachelors in Singapore.
CAST Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh
RATED PG-13 (some adult talk)
BOTTOM LINE A fizzy, frothy rom-com that also marks a milestone for Asians on-screen. (Opens in theaters on Aug. 15.)
“Crazy Rich Asians,” a fairy-tale rom-com with a Chinese-Singaporean twist, begins with a story of racism, elitism and tables turned. In a flashback, Eleanor Young, played by the regal Michelle Yeoh, walks into an exclusive London hotel with her children. Turned away by the sneering concierge, Eleanor goes outside to make a phone call. When she returns, she’s the hotel’s new owner.
It doesn’t ring true, but it’s a delicious fantasy — and that pretty much describes the entirety of “Crazy Rich Asians,” based on Kevin Kwan’s novel. It’s the peasant-to-princess story of Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU (Constance Wu), whose boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding, a Malaysian-born Hugh Grant), turns out to be the wealthiest and most eligible bachelor in Singapore. Their visit to his homeland, for an old friend’s wedding, pulls back the curtain on a world of fantastic Eastern wealth that Rachel never knew existed. As in any fairy tale, there’s an evil matriarch — the imperious and elitist Eleanor — who will prove a stumbling block to Rachel’s dreams of happily-ever-after.
As a novel, “Crazy Rich Asians” made something of a splash in 2013. As a movie, it’s already a cultural landmark, the first major Hollywood production with an all-Asian ensemble cast in 25 years (1993’s “Joy Luck Club” was the last). These moneyed characters may not be “relatable,” exactly, but they’re also not the usual Asian stereotypes. There are no Kung-Fu heroes or mathletes here; they’ve been replaced by supermodels and playboys whose bank accounts, wardrobes and college degrees would put Europe’s noblest families to shame.
The trade-off is that “Crazy Rich Asians” is thoroughly retrograde in every other way. Singapore’s high-society women are mostly backbiters, cat-scratchers or worse (one of Rachel’s rivals plants a dead fish in her bed, “Godfather” style), while the men are basically simple creatures with low social and emotional IQ’s. The exceptions to the rules are Oliver (Nico Santos), a gay courtesan who helps Rachel suit up for an important gala, and Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), a lovably tacky nouveau riche woman who sticks by Rachel no matter what her income.
Directed by Jon M. Chu with a combination of traditional aesthetics (silk dresses, tan hua flowers) and music-video excess (infinity pools, barge-raves), “Crazy Rich Asians” is nothing if not an escapist pleasure. It's as fizzy as Dom Pérignon and as flashy as a pair of Louboutins — even if, in the end, it has the social conscience of a Faberge egg.