“Crazy Rich Asians,” the hotly anticipated film based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, won’t disappoint fans who have been counting down the days till its arrival, like so many daisy petals. What’s more, it will more than satisfy the sweet tooth of romantic comedy fans everywhere who have lately despaired that the frothy, frolicsome genre they adore has been subsumed by raunch and various shades of gray.
On the surface, there are no permutations to speak of in a story whose formula is instantly familiar: After a brief prologue, set in 1995, when a prosperous Chinese family is snubbed at a London hotel, the action zips ahead to New York City, where the little boy of that preamble, Nick Young (Henry Golding), has grown up to become an economics professor and is dating a bright, attractive colleague named Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). He’s invited her to attend his Best Friend’s Wedding back in Singapore, which will entail the ritual of Meeting the Parents, meaning that Things Are Getting Serious (is that even a movie yet?).
While the two are out on a date, a stranger snaps an iPhone pic that goes viral before the second drink is served. Nick, it turns out, is a multi-multimillionaire, and Rachel is the mystery girl who has finally managed to snag him.
That sequence, filmed with alacrity and flair by director Jon M. Chu, asks the audience only to believe that someone as smart as Rachel would not know who Nick is, in an age of Google and Instagram. But with disbelief duly suspended, “Crazy Rich Asians” whisks its characters and the audience to Singapore for a delicious, visually vibrant dive into the sensory delights of its streets, historic homes and gaudy, nouveau-riche McMansions.
Like the finest forebears of the rom-com genre – including its urtext, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” – “Crazy Rich Asians” indulges in the escapist pleasures of aspirational wealth, obscene consumerism and invidious judge-iness. Nick’s family, led by his imperious mother Eleanor (the magnificent Michelle Yeoh), is one of the oldest in Singapore, and their material surroundings show it, from their sumptuous, impeccably tasteful home to their subtly elegant wardrobes. The more arriviste environs of Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) are pointedly more gauche, gilded to resemble Versailles crossed with Donald’s Trump’s bathroom. But it’s the Goh house, overseen by Peik’s manic dad (Ken Jeong) that’s more comforting, which will come in handy when Rachel experiences the inevitable rejection from Nick’s hyper-protective mom.
Along the way, the down-to-earth Rachel will suffer mean-girl bullying, cultural misunderstandings and hurtful put-downs regarding her own background. (“I’m so Chinese,” Rachel says at one point, “that I’m an economics professor who’s lactose intolerant.”)
“Crazy Rich Asians” possesses a sprightly, optimistic tone that pushes every pleasure-button of inveterate rom-com fans, including a fabulous soundtrack of Chinese language pop covers, homages to mouthwatering excess, the requisite fashion-show montage and hilarious comic relief by way of Awkwafina and her co-sidekick, Nico Santos. But it turns out that the movie has layers of meaning and nuance that give it added richness, including a respectful critique of the Chinese tradition of filial loyalty, a withering look at intra-community prejudices that coexist with external racism, skeptical digs at unbridled materialism and sometimes stingingly on-point acknowledgment of China’s rising strength as a global economic and cultural force.
“Crazy Rich Asians” - the first Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast in more than 20 years - is itself an expression of that power, as is Papa Goh’s admonition to his son over dinner early in the film. “Eat your nuggets,” he tells the young man. “There’s a lot of starving children in America.”