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Crazy Rich Asians

(2018) ** 1/2 Unrated
121 min. Warner Bros. Director: Jon M. Chu. Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong.

/content/films/5123/1.jpgThe release earlier this year of Fifty Shades Freed left a void in the cinematic marketplace. Without the hugely popular series, where would audiences go to get their fix of book-to-screen sex and romance, killer abs and kisses, the lifestyles of the rich and famous? Crazy Rich Asians—also based on a trilogy of novels—aims to claim the Fifty Shades space and perhaps be twice as successful by being half as stupid. The hopeful franchise also marks a long-overdue investment in Asian talent as the first major Hollywood release in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast.

This new franchise gets off to a solid start in the hands of director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2), who gives Kevin Kwan’s novel a bright, glossy, colorful treatment. In short order, we meet Rachel Chu (likeable lead Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat), a young Chinese-American woman living the dream in New York City. An Economics professor, she’s the youngest faculty member at NYU. She loves her job almost as much as her man, longtime boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). But Rachel gets the shock of her young life when, on the occasion of agreeing to accompany Nick to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore, she learns that Nick belongs to one of the top ten wealthiest families in Asia.

It’s a stretch, of course, that Nick has kept this secret as long as he has, but the contrivance allows the audience to join Rachel on her trip down the rabbit hole to a new world. In Singapore, Rachel feels the hard glare of Nick’s mother Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh), who quickly judges Rachel a liability (“All Americans think about is their own happiness”). Meanwhile, Rachel faces toxic gossip and backbiting from the local contingent of mean girls while accepting moral support from friends old and new. At every turn, the elephant in the room is the “crazy” richness of the Young family and its social circle.

And there’s the rub: by flattening Kwan’s novel into a two-hour popcorn picture, Crazy Rich Asians gets lost in the weeds of what should be a fascinating central theme. Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli’s screenplay should be asking what it means to have this much money. In Hollywood's golden age, gowns and tuxes provided a getaway from the harsh struggles of the Depression, but the culture has changed. When widening economic inequality has become one of the most persistent issues of the day, it’s not a good look for movies like the Fifty Shades trilogy and Crazy Rich Asians to play like an idle flip through a fashion magazine, with its photo shoots of destination weddings and inaccessible designer duds, and its ads for obnoxious cars and other luxury accessories that can only be bought with “fuck you” money.

To be fair, Crazy Rich Asians at times hints at the implications of this wealth, occasionally depicting this world as a distressing, Fellini-esque circus of excess or depicting the insidious ways in which money gets in the way of personal relationships (particularly in a subplot involving Nick’s cousin and her husband, who’s not from money). Far more often, though, we’re watching a Cinderella dream. Rachel may not much care about the money, at least in comparison to the love of Nick and the acceptance of Eleanor, but by the film’s climax, a $40 million wedding, conspicuous consumerism has been glamorized beyond the point of no return, and the difference between romance and showmanship becomes, at least momentarily, irrelevant.

Crazy Rich Asians will win over audiences with its escapism, sincere depiction of a loving central couple troubleshooting familial and cultural hangups, and not-so-secret weapon of broad comic flourishes. Fresh off of Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina scores as Rachel’s sassy Singapore-based college friend, even if Chu throws off the balance by casting chronic overactor and low-comedy specialist Ken Jeong as her father. Despite it all, subtlety turns out to be Crazy Rich Asians’ strong suit in one sense: the great Michelle Yeoh holding court as the unnervingly quiet, still gravitational center of the picture.

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