Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: Crazy Rich Asians
I’ve talked about romantic comedies before, especially their tendency toward paint-by-numbers storytelling. Part of that is the nature of the genre, what essentially defines it. So what we really look for in a good rom-com is its ability to overcome that formula and deliver on both expectations and innovation—not an easy task. Fortunately, Crazy Rich Asians is just crazy enough to pull it off.
The film is based on the first in a series of novels by Kevin Kwan, which tells the complicated love story of Rachel Chu and Nick Young. The first breath of fresh air is that we meet them already very much in love, a nice reprieve from the go-to meet-cute. Their delightfully happy average life together in New York is upheaved when Nick decides to bring Rachel home to Singapore to meet his family for a wedding. Rachel is soon thrust into the hellfire of a world she was blissfully ignorant of: that of the disgustingly wealthy Asian elite.
From this point, you don’t need to be a writer to start painting those numbers in: the family disapproves of Rachel, forces conspire to drive her and Nick apart—which ultimately happens—and only a magnificent grand gesture can hope to bring them back together. But there is enough originality and sincere character development to keep the audience emotionally invested in the cookie-cutter journey, and while the story does shadow the basic formula, it also cleverly skirts a number of trope-traps along the way (for example, we thankfully avoid the cliché of Rachel showing up to the party in far-too-pedestrian attire).
We also get a nice contrast to the rudimentary argument that money is the sole root of relationship evils through exploration of Astrid (Gemma Chan) and Michael’s (Pierre Png) fleeting attempts to avoid the pitfalls of a wealth deficit. It reinforces the theme that only by staying true to yourself can you hope be happy together. And at the risk of revealing too much, the ending even allows Rachel to use her brains, skills, and morals to overcome, even as she ultimately concedes.
Like any relationship, it’s not about what happens, it’s about who’s involved. And here’s where the movie truly begins to distinguish itself. None of this would work without strong, compelling leads, and Constance Wu rises to the occasion with a bold, fierce, and enchanting presence. I’ve been a huge fan and supporter of hers since she began her stint as the irascible matriarch on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat (which if you’re not watching, you really should be!). She proves her range by divesting from the authoritarian working mother of three on FOTB to the opposite end of the spectrum: a young, modern professor of economics in a developing relationship with a hunky young man. Wu understates Rachel, grounding her, and the audience, amid the madcap performances surrounding her. She plays Rachel’s doubts and apprehension sincerely without stepping into melodramatic collapse. She’s the ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and gives off enough charm, humor, and resolve that we feel every moment of her roller-coaster experience. It may or may not end up being a star-making role, but it absolutely announces to those not already aware that she is the latest in a distinguished line of go-to comedic female leads.
Partnered at Wu’s side is Henry Golding as Nick, an up-and-comer himself having worked mostly as a television host and model. While there’s still an obvious green about him, he certainly does an admirable job in the role, managing to give Nick a distinct likability (which in comparison to his family is not hard) without feeling fabricated. With all the misunderstandings and comedic faux pas running amuck, it would be easy to have Nick’s laid-back reactions come across as disingenuous. But Golding manages to tread that line and prove Nick the level-headed, affable gentleman he appears. I suppose the best summation would be that Golding somehow creates a character you’d be both in awe of due to his wealth, looks, and charm and yet put at ease by enough to have a beer and a laugh with. An impressive turn for a first-timer.
Rounding out the company is the ever-magnificent Michelle Yeoh, perfectly cast as the prim matriarch of the Young clan. There’s no questioning Yeoh’s abilities at this stage of her career, yet she continues to stun by adding dimension to what is essentially a somewhat horrid character. Through both performance and story, we develop an understanding as to what makes this woman tick, and therefore find her choices simultaneously appalling and sympathetic.
While Wu, Golding, and Yeoh do most of the heavy dramatic lifting, the remaining players are mostly there to add laughs. I mentioned in my Ocean’s 8 review how impressed I’ve been with Awkwafina for quite a while, and she shows no sign of slowing down here as Rachel’s Singaporean ex-roommate and confidant. Both she and perpetual goofball Ken Jeong tag-team to represent the other side of Asian wealth. Through their outlandish dress, oddball behavior, and more money than we’d ever see in a lifetime, they underscore the dichotomy between the prim, repressed old money and the unabashed, joyful exuberance of new money.
Director John M. Chu infuses the film with a careful balance of modern and vintage. There is a definite throwback quality to many of the shots, a colorful 1960s vibe that harkens back to Asian pop-cinema such as Flower Drum Song. The duality plays no small part in giving the film its fresh, distinctive feel and is perhaps part of why the film may seem derivative in plot but also comforting and familiar in tone. I’ll admit it is NOT a subtlety I would have expected from the director of G.I. Joe: Retaliation (one of the all-time worst movies I’ve ever seen). But as an Asian director, I suspect Chu might have taken more time and care in creating the first major theatrical release with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago and doubled his efforts to make sure he did the book, film, and cast justice.
While not much of a game-changer at heart, Crazy Rich Asians offers a number of innovations and nuance to make it a fun, entertaining addition to the rom-com pantheon. It doesn’t just boast a full-Asian cast, it offers a platform for an exceedingly talented group of actors, delivering funny, honest, and endearing performances that explore the difficulties of the universal human experience. If you’re a fan of the genre and looking for a worthy example, Crazy Rich Asians is certainly a sane choice.
YANG: GLOW (Season 2)
The ladies are back in town!
The surprisingly layered series about the trials and tribulations surrounding an all-female 1980s wrestling show picks up both literally and creatively where the first season left off. The tumultuous relationship between main characters Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) continues to drive the emotional core, but like any good soap opera, each of the dozen or so surrounding characters gets plenty of time to shine.
Having produced a worthy pilot, the in-show GLOW series is now in full production, setting off a progression of varied conflicts over roles, characters, fame, and—naturally—control. The fight to remain on the air tests each of characters in different ways, but none more so than our leads.
While Debbie and Ruth shared mostly equal storytime in the first season, the sophomore entry skews a tad more in Debbie’s favor. Still angry and bitter at the betrayal by both Ruth and her husband, she finds herself alone, in the midst of a divorce, and struggling to balance work on the show with raising her newborn son. As her stress levels rise, her patience falls, leading her to take out her aggression on Ruth in one of the most brutal and cringe-worthy scenes of the series. Gilpin is run through an emotional gauntlet over the course of the episodes, and so it’s little wonder she received a best supporting actress Emmy nod this year.
Keeping pace is the understatedly incredible Alison Brie, whose meteoric talent continues to excel in everything she does. In her own Emmy-worthy approach, Brie weaves Ruth through her own emotional landmines, struggling to both atone and move on from her admitted mistakes. Slowly, she begins to lift herself off the mat and find her own self-worth by working her way toward a much more influential leadership role within the show, as well as testing the waters of a burgeoning relationship. While both actions ruffle a number of feathers and cost her dearly, Ruth somehow never seems to lose that innocent, optimistic naiveté that seems both her greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Scene-stealer Marc Maron also returns as crotchety director Sam Sylvia, who finds himself fumbling to parent his newly discovered daughter, flipping the bird to the sponsors who dare question his creative genius, and coming to terms with his occasionally sweet, but often sour, relationship with Ruth. Maron rises to the grand tradition of using that intangible charm to endear salty curmudgeons to an audience and fills out the triumvirate that gives this show its foundation.
What impresses me most about the show is the amount of character the writers are able to infuse into each episode, while never making any one feel bloated. It would take far too long to give each cast member their certain due, but there’s no question that each actor makes the absolute most of their opportunities, making it truly an exploration of this team rather than hanging it all on the Big 3 and filling out the background with cardboard standees. Showrunners Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive have carefully crafted each character and seasonal arc with precision, making sure to move both ahead in satisfying and surprising ways.
But perhaps we really shouldn’t be too surprised by the overall progression of the GLOW world. After finishing the season, I followed up by viewing the documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (also on Netflix). I’m old enough to have remembered when the original GLOW series was airing in the 80s, but young enough not to recall hardly any of its details. As such, the fascinating tutorial was eye-opening in a number of ways, not the least of which was just how uncannily faithful the modern series has been to the wrestling pioneers and their journey. Whether it’s the Russian villain who’s really a sweetheart, or the Polynesian powerhouse who brought legitimate wrestling chops to the group, or the fact that wrestling was not the only focus of the show, which included comedy skits, music videos, and ultimately a live-action show, Mensch and Flahive have obviously done their homework to find their own narrative while remaining faithful to the source.
GLOW: Season 2 bodyslams the notion of the sophomore slump, delivering equal-or-better drama, comedy, and heart than its predecessor. Not only staying true to its fascinating characters, but logically and faithfully progressing them forward, year two proves the first time round was no fluke and earns the bevy of accolades that have been justly heaped upon it. Whether you’re looking for sporty action, soapy drama, goofball comedy, or simply good old-fashioned solid storytelling, these ladies definitely know how to shine.