If you want to make a hit movie in 2018, here's how you do it: Pick a genre of film, then find a group of people who are underrepresented in Hollywood and cast them in it. You can call it the Black Panther Principle (although you should call it the Tyler Perry Principle, but whatever.)
There's nothing in Crazy Rich Asians that Shakespeare wouldn't have recognized as a good romantic comedy move. You could re-set the whole thing in Mississippi and only have to change maybe 1,000 words in the script. The story is universal. Here's an old, conservative society that's been chugging along very well for a hundred generations, thank you very very much, that is suddenly confronted with a member of another, younger, more open, society. The silly, out of touch, yet enormously powerful aristocracy must react to a powerless, yet wise, peasant. A young couple finds themselves torn between pursuing their passions and their duty to their families.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) describes herself as "so Chinese, I'm an economics professor with a lactose intolerance." Her relationship with Nick Young (Henry Golding) is nothing remarkable in cosmopolitan New York. They're both young professionals from somewhere else, obsessed with their careers. Then Nick invites Rachel to be his date to his best friend's wedding back home in Singapore.
- Awkafina gets most of the laughs in Crazy Rich Asians
Rachel knows that Nick was raised in his grandmother's house, but what she finds out is that Nick's family is one of the biggest real estate developers in Asia. The first inkling Rachel gets that her boyfriend's people are of the insanely wealthy variety is seeing what trans-Pacific air travel is like in silk pajamas.
Everyone in Singapore is rich. At least, everyone who matters. But the Youngs are the kind of rich the other richies wish they were. When her college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) hears that Rachel's potential fiancee is the scion of the Young fortune, she freaks out and begs to tag along to the rehearsal dinner at grandma's house. Nick says his family is like anyone else's, half people you want to spend time with, and half people you don't want to talk to. His mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is icy and traditional. His cousin Alistair (Remy Hii) is a womanizing Hong Kong film director. He's only really close with his regal, glamorous cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), who at least has the noblesse oblige to run a charity foundation. The rest of the family, along with most of the people in their orbit, are snotty society types who would rather gut a fish in your bed and call you a gold digger than look at you. Those are the ones Astrid calls sharks.
It's tempting to call director John M. Chu’s adaptation of a satiric novel by Kevin Kwan a conventional film, when it's really the kind of well-made, mid-budget picture that used to be Hollywood's bread and butter but has become increasingly rare in the age of superhero-themed tentpoles. The advantage of using a formula — like moving The Philadelphia Story to Singapore, for example — is that it frees you to focus on execution to a certain extent. Chu's leads, Wu and Golding, are unthreateningly charismatic and good looking enough for the audience to project themselves onto. Everyone else is playing a type, led by Awkwafina as the free-spirited (read: weirdo) best friend. She gets the lion's share of the laughs by bouncing one-liners off the straight-laced Wu. Also excellent is Yeoh, who is one of those rare people with the gift to command a screen just by standing still and staring at you. Yeoh's Eleanor is both a victim of the stifling upper class social order and chief perpetuator of it — in other words, she's one "Bless your heart ..." from being a Tennessee Williams character. When Chu stages his showdown between modernity and tradition, it's Yeoh who speaks quite convincingly for the latter, and it is she who must change the most when the virtue of Nick and Rachel's love wins the day.
As you might expect, Crazy Rich Asians engages in a fair amount of lifestyle porn, even if Chu plays it for laughs most of the time, like the subtle bit where the security guards at grandma Young's house turn out to be actual Gurkhas with "knife guns." Who hasn't wanted to sail a container ship out into international waters to party with drugs, models, and rocket propelled grenades? But the film succeeds because Chu and company are strongly empathetic toward the targets of their comedy. The foibles of the Crazy Rich Asians are just like ours, only more expensive.