When people describe “Crazy Rich Asians” and its “all-Asian” cast, they’re clearly forgetting the movie’s first scene. There, in the ’90s, a family from Singapore arrives at a luxury London hotel on a stormy night, only to have the smug white desk clerks disavow the reservation — maybe the lady would like to check hotels in Chinatown? Back into the rain goes the mother (Michelle Yeoh, of like, 90 things, but none more iconic than “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) for one call in a phone booth. She then returns to inform the Englishmen that her husband has just bought the hotel, and that her family will be heading to their room. These are your old white men in this story: prim suits, esteemed accents, totally useless.
The demographics of the cast were the big story with the film’s debut. In the United States, people of Asian backgrounds make up 11 percent of frequent moviegoers; they were 38 percent of the audience in that first weekend. But aside from its setting — mostly in Singapore, a stunning fever dream of a city — the contours will feel comfortably familiar to anyone who enjoys a smart fish-out-of-water rom-com with a swirl of Cinderella. It’s a comfortable time at the movies, in other words, that lands a few bust-out laughs and some genuine pathos, and looks fabulous throughout.
Your couple? Hip New Yorkers Rachel (Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat”) and Nick (Henry Golding). He’s Disney-prince handsome, if a bit bland, with a posh accent and a big invite: After a year of dating, he’d like her to come meet his family at a wedding in Singapore where he’s the best man. She’s an NYU game theory prof whose single Chinese immigrant mother advises Rachel early on that she’ll have an uphill slog convincing Nick’s mom that they belong together. And this is before — surprise, Rach — they even know the first thing about Nick’s family.
Oh, and that first thing happens to be: The Youngs are old-money Singapore quasi-royal gazillionaires (the sort who can buy London hotels with a phone call) and Nick, as the oldest, most-put-together son, stands to inherit the real estate empire. How Rachel, an economics professor with Google access, never managed to put a single bit of this together before they’re getting into a double-bedded first-class pod on their flight to Singapore is a plot hole left for the presumed prequel, “Rachel’s Year of Going Amish.”
It turns out that a lot of people find the smart, affable, humble Rachel quite charming: the flamboyant cousin (Nico Santos), her old college buddy (Awkwafina, always bringin’ it like a bat out of hell), and a few others you’ll recognize (Jimmy O. Yang of “Silicon Valley” as a lavishly trashy rich kid, Ken Jeong of “Hangover” fame). Decidedly underwhelmed is Nick’s mom. Her slow-burn showdown with Rachel shapes the contours of the film, and drives closer to the heart of the immigrant experience in the States than the crazy/rich/crazyrichness of the rest of the production — the helicopter rides, the sprawling mansions, the models-for-hire.
Director John M. Chu, working with the screenplay from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 hit novel of the same name, manages to balance the ostentatious wealth against the lives new immigrants to the States experience. That is: Work your ass off, don’t complain, fight past some kind of marginalization by your peers, keep working your ass off. Pretty much every immigrant or first-generation American has a tale that sounds like this, if you slow down and listen. Or, as it turns out, if you make a big-budget Hollywood blowout that feels thoroughly Asian in its style and yet fully American in its storytelling.