The broad strokes of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling, compulsively readable “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy are familiar enough: it’s a girl meets boy story — and a girl-meets-boy’s-deranged-family story — the kind of subject matter that’s always ripe for a rom-com. But Kwan’s books, loosely based on his own coming-of-age in Singapore, take that classic narrative and turn it into a vivacious love letter to contemporary Asian culture, populated by unique characters and set in the eye-popping locales of one of the world’s richest countries.
Jon M. Chu’s big screen adaptation of the material, a groundbreaking studio film that is entirely populated by Asian-American performers (the first of its kind since “The Joy Luck Club,” 25 years ago), is a loving take on Kwan’s books, bundled up in a wildly entertaining package.
Like the first book in Kwan’s series, Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” opens in decidedly un-luxe terms that provide insight into the kind of family we’re about to get to know very well, headed up by steely-eyed and self-possessed matriarch Eleanor Young (a dazzling Michelle Yeoh). Set in London in 1995, “Crazy Rich Asians” kicks off on a rainy night, as multiple members of the wealthy Young family stumble into a private hotel, eager to settle into their suite after an exhausting flight halfway around the world. Once there, they face a cadre of unsmiling hotel employees who simply can’t believe that this family has booked their biggest (read: most expensive) suite.
Annoyed but unruffled, Eleanor makes a call, alerting her husband to the situation, and in very short order, the Youngs have purchased the hotel from a beaming proprietor who all but shoos his racist employees out of the way in order to express his joy to the clan.
The lesson is twofold: don’t mess with Eleanor, and don’t doubt the power of money. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is about to learn that the hard way, as the film slingshots forward into present day New York City, where NYU professor Rachel is relishing the prospect of a summer trip to Singapore to meet her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) family. Rachel has zero idea that Nick’s family is wealthy: When the pair are shepherded into over-the-top first class accommodations at the airport, Rachel can only sputter, “We’re economy people!,” the first of many assumptions that will prove to be very wrong. She’s also unaware of how their wealth makes them an object of fascination for the rest of Singapore, a theme of Kwan’s book that Chu and screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim never shy away from portraying.
Within moments of agreeing to travel to Singapore with Nick for his best friend’s wedding, the whole of the country’s upper crust already knows about it, with the news zinging across social media (brought to colorful life by snappy editing and bright visuals) before Rachel and Nick can even finish their dessert. It’s not Rachel’s fault that she doesn’t know about Nick’s family, because her charming beau hasn’t exactly made it a priority to let her know that, oh, yes, his family isn’t just rich, they’re crazy rich. Rachel is about to be fed to the sharks, and Wu’s buoyant, bright-eyed performance makes her impossible not to root for, especially as the inevitable unfolds on screen.
Chu’s film is smartly organized around three main events during Rachel and Nick’s Singapore trip: a luxurious dinner party at Nick’s grandmother’s estate, a garish pair of pre-wedding bach parties, and the wedding itself — not just the nuptials of some friend, but Singapore’s event of the decade. Such lavish settings allow Chu and company to pile on the opulent touches, from sumptuous costumes to palatial settings to even a shipping barge retrofitted into a nightmarish party vessel. The film wears its culture and heritage with ease — for instance, characters switch between English, Chinese, and Malay slang — the kind of stuff Hollywood so rarely brings to big budget studio features.
Fans of Kwan’s books will not be disappointed by Chu’s adaptation, as “Crazy Rich Asians” lovingly brings to life some of the novel’s standout scenes, even as Chiarelli and Lim’s screenplay snips away subplots that detract from Rachel’s journey. Some of those subplots are missed, including a deeper focus on Henry’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her own complex love life, along with the comedic relief provided by her brother Edison’s (Ronny Chieng) obsession with money. And yet other standouts emerge, including the antics of Rachel’s old friend Peik Lin (an always-uproarious Awkwafina) and her wild family (including Ken Jeong as her nutty dad).
Chu’s wild ride inevitably hits a road block in the film’s clunky third act, which is tasked with pushing Rachel and Eleanor’s simmering feud to a shocking head, complete with soap opera twists and a genuinely emotional denouement. It’s all set against the backdrop of a multi-million dollar wedding that’s both absurd and kind of stunning. A new ending, crafted just for the film and pulling strings from both Kwan’s first and second novels, does its best to bring the film to a satisfying conclusion. And it does deliver, while also setting the stage for an obvious next stage: sequels, and soon.
“Crazy Rich Asians” will be released into theaters by Warner Bros. on Wednesday, August 15.