REVIEW: Tyler Wilson - Constance Wu anchors fun and frothy ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

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A romantic comedy can succeed by feeling comfortable and familiar, but it can fail just as easily by relying too much on overworn genre tropes. It’s a tricky balance, and the reason why so few modern rom-coms make much of an impression.

“Crazy Rich Asians” follows the conventional beats but does so with sincerity and just enough fresh elements to support its charismatic cast. It indulges in the gaudy antics of the beautiful, uber-rich without losing a sense of humanity.

Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an economics professor at New York University who is asked to attend a posh Singapore wedding with her longtime boyfriend, history professor Nick Young (Henry Golding). She seems to be the only person on the planet unaware of Nick’s status in Singapore — his family is considered to be the richest of the rich, and Nick’s protective mother (played by Michelle Yeoh) serves as a gatekeeper into the family.

While Rachel somehow lets Nick off the hook for hiding this entire alien universe from her, the pair spend the majority of “Crazy Rich Asians” working together to navigate strict family traditions and a series of extravagant, high-pressure parties populated by jealous, prying eyes. Rachel has some support from an old college friend (“Ocean’s 8” standout Awkwafina) and a few of Nick’s “regular rich” relatives, but the intense scrutiny on her modest upbringing leads to Rachel questioning the authenticity of their relationship.

The few who watch the criminally underrated ABC series, “Fresh Off the Boat” already know the immense star power and comic timing of Constance Wu. Seeing her in such a different role in “Crazy Rich Asians” is a bit jarring at first, but she serves as a charismatic anchor to a somewhat overstuffed film. Rachel needs to be the “normal,” relatable person in the film, but she also needs to be the jolt of change in the world of Nick’s insulated family. Wu and Golding also share the necessary spark of chemistry to make the audience believe their relationship has a chance of surviving the inciting culture shock.

It’s Wu, Golding, Yeoh and many other performances that build the humanity around what often appears to be a Scrooge McDuck level of cartoon wealth. Director Jon M. Chu (known for “Now You See Me 2” and some dance-centric “Step Up” entries) uses those performances to counteract how he indulges in the almost fantastical culture of Singapore wealth. This movie universe is gorgeous and ridiculous like a modern Gatsby bash. There may be a sense of emptiness at the core, but dang if it isn’t also a whole lot of fun.

Based on the popular novel by Kevin Kwan, the screenplay for “Crazy Rich Asians” bites off a bit more than it can handle even with a generous two-hour run time. There’s a few too many characters running around, and the major subplot, involving Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) fumbles in like too much of an afterthought. The climax of the movie hinges on a rather hasty betrayal too, but its resolution recovers thanks to some especially heartfelt work from Wu and Yeoh.

From a storytelling point-of-view, “Crazy Rich Asians” isn’t doing anything too revolutionary. But the familiar beats work so well because of the care devoted to the characters and the culture being depicted onscreen.

Case in point — this movie does the tired “try a dozen dresses on” montage and gets away with it because it injects enough fresh perspective to make it engaging and fun. The “dress montage” has been the bane of bad romantic comedies for decades. How “Crazy Rich Asians” pulls it off is probably the best individual example of why the movie works overall. It actually makes sense in the moment of this hyper-stylized universe.

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Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com.

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