By John H. Foote
In a brilliant marketing move, Warner Brothers has rushed their blockbuster comedy, which is also a major Best Picture contender into the home market for Christmas. Count on this being underneath many a tree of stuffing many a stocking for the holiday season. This will build even greater awareness for the film, already a massive worldwide hit come Oscar season. If the A hits nominated, they could start here and do no wrong.
This romantic fantasy is being celebrated as the first major film to deal with Asians to be released into the mainstream. OK, fair enough, but let’s be clear about something, there is nothing remotely realistic about the film, it is a fairy tale committed to its audience having a good time watching people unspeakably wealthy doing that very thing. Money is great, and the more you have the more “stuff” you can buy but, but it does set you apart from the rest of the world and cushions you in a sort of cocoon? Can it buy love or happiness? Look at the current American President? His wealth or his perceived wealth has made him barely a human being and certainly not well liked. And when your life ends, your family is left to deal with all the stuff and all the money, is that even fair? Money has been the cause of many troubles around the globe, and sure it is great to have it, but to think it defines you or sets you above the rest of the population is obscenely stupid.
The Asian characters in this story, some of them, are so rich that when our hero’s mother, Eleanor, is insulted by the hotel manager, she does not report him, she does not rage, she seethes and then she quietly buys the hotel. Again…she buys the whole freaking hotel!!!! That kind of wealth, that sort of obscene wealth allows those with it to see extraordinary things, but on a part of earth, no one but the unspeakably wealthy ever sees. They can never share it with anyone, so can it really bring them joy? And are they so attached to their funds that they die miserably, aware of the fact finally, they cannot take it with them? In the end, they are just like everyone else…very mortal.
Based on the best-seller by Kevin Kwan, the screenplay is leaned down from what was a huge sprawling story to focus on an impending marriage between two young Asians, both successful, both deeply in love with each other, yet from different worlds. Rachel (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU, her background was growing up in blue-collar Queens. Nick Young (Henry Golding) is part of a real estate empire back in Singapore, though Rachel has no idea of the size of his empire, she has no clue that his wealth is so great he is virtual royalty back home. They seem a perfect match, made for each other and are clearly mad for each other. But we must bear in mind there are traditions to be honoured, traditions to be upheld, family duty which could mean choosing loyalty to one’s family over love.
The couple travels to Singapore to meet Nick’s family and a more gorgeous place on earth you will not see. Everywhere we look is beautiful, the countryside, the lush greenery, and flowers, the impossibly blue sky, it is as though heaven descended to earth. The first hint of trouble comes when Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) glances in the direction of Rachel and looks down her nose at her son’s lady. She is a fire-breathing dragon lady, fiercely protective of her son and her wealth, we never know quite which means more to her. Her glare is baleful as well as being imperious, she knows her place in the world, likes it and is not the least afraid of throwing her money around to get what she wants. There is a cruel edge to her that at first is off-putting, but this is a fantasy movie, a happy movie, and nothing is going to get in the way of this Hollywood romantic comedy. Not even the fantastic Miss Yeoh, an international star of some high regard for the last twenty years.
Rachels’ parents are not wealthy, at all, and their crass ways may seem disturbing to Eleanor and her snobby group, but they cannot deny the honesty of the two. They are tacky to a fault, but Rachel cares not, she loves them for who they are.
Will the mother break the couple up? Will the hierarchy and issues with class bring them down? What do you think?
Michelle Yeoh is terrific as Eleanor and could be in the running for Best Supporting Actress. She creates such presence with just a look, and speaks with such delicious arrogance and condescension, as though she felt people were there to serve her (most of them are) and for her own personal happiness. So long has she been wrapped in wealth she has forgotten some of what makes us human. Of course, Rachel is a help in this regard, could we expect anything less?
The two lovers are beautifully portrayed by the actors, especially Constance Wu, just a beautiful presence on film, near luminous. We understand seconds after she comes onscreen why Nick, why anyone would fall in love with her. Henry Golding carries himself like royalty, like a young man who has always had everything he always wanted and when threatened with potentially not getting Rachel he looks lost, not sure how to fight back and make it happen. They have a fun chemistry together, we believe the love they have for each other, which is a love story is paramount.
Gemma Chan is very funny and gives the film a boost of energy, not that it needed it, as Astrid, Nick’s glamorous Aunt, who is the talk of the town given her own marital issues. SHe likes Rachel at once and enjoys letting her know what marrying into this family means. LIke Rachel, Astrid’s husband Michael (Pierre Page) is very much an outsider and has never come to terms with his wife’s money, which brings unwanted and unnecessary pressure to their marriage. Looking at the two of them, is Rachel seeing what her life might become?
As Rachel’s father, Ken Jeong an active comic is outstanding. Goofy enough to be laughed at and with, he makes no secret about being blown away by the wealth his daughter might be marrying into and what it might mean for his life.
The film is directed by Jon M. Chu, like a bottle of champagne, a big pop and lots of fizzy moments that will delight the audience. There is nothing really deep here, the lessons we learn we have learned before, but it is so much fun this time it might feel like the first time. There did not seem to be any government issues in Singapore, and we never see any real poverty or true life living. Like the characters, we are wrapped in a bubble wrap, wealth protecting everyone from life. One might ask if they are living their lives at all, yet one look at Nick and Rachel and we know they are. I enjoyed every moment of the film, there is nothing to dislike, though it might have reached a little deeper into the love story to explore why they fell in love, why they are so right for each other? Minor quibble, it is a lovely film, filled with much laughter and good will, I smiled after watching it for a good couple of hours, which if you know me, never happens. Great, giddy good fun. I could see Oscar attention for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Yeoh) and for the Screenplay. Now that said, the film is like a good bottle of champagne, fizzy and tasty going down, and you might, MIGHT recall it fondly in the future, but never will stand out among the great bottle you might have had the good fortune to consume.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.