This past weekend marked the passing of Neil Simon, among the 20th century's most prolific writers of the stage and screen. A master of the romantic comedy, among Simon's best works were the legendary likes of Barefoot in the Park, The Goodbye Girl and Seems Like Old Times.
Simon's mastery of dialogue and expert feeling for what makes a romcom prosper would have worked wonders for Crazy Rich Asians, a picture which sports an enchanting cast and couldn't be much more visually splendid, yet offers very few surprises along the way.
The film, based on Kevin Kwan's 2013 novel, opens on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at NYU who accepts boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding)'s invitation to join him in Singapore for his best friend's wedding. Little does Rachel realize Nick's family is, well, crazy rich, and that he is considered one of Singapore's most eligible bachelors. Awaiting Rachel on this journey will be a sea of oddball relatives, self-absorbed socialites and, most daunting of all, Nick's mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), a towering figure who is skeptical of Rachel even prior to her arrival.
The Rachel-Eleanor dynamic, if familiar, is handily the most compelling part of Crazy Rich Asians, if exclusively on account of Yeoh's commanding performance. Any time she graces the screen, even if she's devoid of dialogue, the proceedings are lifted to something truly riveting. Take, for instance, the scene on the family's grand staircase, in which Eleanor tells Rachel she'll never amount to enough for her son. It's a breathtaking moment in a film with all too few of them.
When Eleanor isn't in the picture, Crazy Rich Asians is a more scattershot affair, sometimes flourishing (like anytime the marvelous Awkwafina shows up as Rachel's college bestie Peik Lin) and other times flatlining (during a dreary subplot involving Nick's cousin and her cheating husband). Perhaps most frustrating is how little some of the supporting players are showcased. As Peik Lin's mother Neena, for instance, Koh Chieng Mun makes a fabulous, splashy first impression and then all but disappears. There is also Tan Kheng Hua, devastatingly great as Rachel's mom but again, it's practically a cameo.
Wu and Golding exude no shortage of charisma as Rachel and Nick, though the writing often proves too mawkish for them to completely prevail. Director Jon M. Chu and photographer Vanja Cernjul have as much passion for the Singapore scenery as Woody Allen does New York in his pictures - the setting is especially rich early on, as the couple takes in dinner at a street vendor marketplace. Of course, for the most part, this is no Woody Allen-level comedy.
Crazy Rich Asians is worthwhile for Yeoh's crazy amazing performance alone but hardly ranks among the finest contemporary romcoms.