“Follow the money” has a tried-and-true political pedigree. How well does it work for a romantic comedy? For the first hour of “Crazy Rich Asians” it works very entertainingly indeed.
Directed by Jon M. Chu, the movie adapts Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel about mega-money nuptials in Singapore. For a while, “Crazy Rich Asians” has the airborne, happy preposterousness of a good screwball comedy. Those first 60 minutes or so are a treat: lighthearted, sure-handed, zippy. They’re great to look at, too. Book your flight to Singapore soon. Seats will be going fast.
Alas, as with not a few real-life weddings, things get thrown out of whack by the bachelor party and bridal shower. It takes a good — or not-so-good — 45 minutes for the movie to get its tonal groove back, with the mandatory happy ending. That’s no spoiler, even for those who haven’t read the novel. You were expecting tears on such high-thread-count pillows? The ending’s jet-fueled twist is hard to resist.
The romantic leads aren’t the bride and groom, but two guests. Constance Wu plays Rachel, an NYU economist. She’s a boot-strap success story, raised in the States by a Chinese-immigrant single mom. Henry Golding plays her beau, Nick. Any boot straps he has are from Lobb of London. If the Youngs were any wealthier they could buy Switzerland with their Swiss bank account and have enough left over for Luxembourg.
“Your family is, like, rich?” she asks. (So how long exactly have you been going out with him, Rachel?) His reply — “We’re . . . comfortable ” — ranks on the Richter scale of understatement just above describing Fort Knox as an ATM.
The speculation about Idris Elba succeeding Daniel Craig as 007 had a recent spike. Forget about Elba. Think Golding, Henry Golding. He’s that suave and assured. Wu can’t quite hold up her end. The one who can is Michelle Yeoh, as Nick’s mother. Does any living actress have a stronger claim to the title of goddess? When Nick and Rachel arrive in Singapore for the wedding — the groom is his best friend, Nick is best man — she’s as unhappy to meet her as she is delighted to see him. If such a thing exists as steely elegance, Yeoh has a trademark on it. As Rachel can attest, there’s nothing crouching or hidden about Mrs. Young.
Working hard to steal the picture, perhaps too hard, are Awkwafina, as Rachel’s pal from undergraduate days, and Ken Jeong, as her dad. Watching Jeong do his Ken Jeong thing is starting to feel a little like watching certain ethnic actors from the pre-civil rights era do theirs. You can’t help laughing, but you feel a bit queasy doing it.
Ethnicity is an issue with “Crazy Rich Asians.” People unfamiliar with the novel and its sequels might find the title off-putting. People who wander into the movie midway through might find all the lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-fabulous gross stereotyping. Yet it seems that across the board Chinese-American viewers — even Chinese-Americans who haven’t seen it — consider the movie empowering, affirming: a cultural event in a very good way. “Black Panther” with gold plating substituted for vibranium? Something like that.
Maybe the key is how nicely self-aware the move is. On the soundtrack, for example, we hear both “Material Girl” and “Money (That’s What I Want)” sung in Mandarin. Everything’s so over the top it’s a bit weightless, which in this context is a compliment. The allure of conspicuous-consumption porn transcends race. The sort of behavior that creates it sure does, too. Seeing “Crazy Rich Asians” at a multiplex in Vegas would be a real kick.
★ ★ ½
CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Directed by Jon M. Chu. Written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. Based on the novel by Kevin Kwan. Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina. At Boston theaters, West Newton, suburbs. 121 minutes. PG-13 (some suggestive content and language). In English, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Malay, with subtitles.
Correction: Previous versions of this story gave the wrong first name for Kevin Kwan, the writer of the novel which “Crazy Rich Asians” is based on.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.