Sunday 16 September 2018

Money talks: "Crazy Rich Asians"

Film historians addressing this century's turbulent first quarter will have to set aside whole chapters for two tectonic industry shifts: the move towards streaming as a preferred viewing option, and the growth of the Chinese film industry, developments that have increased levels of handwringing in Hollywood boardrooms by several hundred percent. 2018 will be the first year when total revenue at the Chinese box office surpasses total revenue in the United States - the reason why so many recent blockbusters have looked East for their actors (Bingbing Li in Transformers 4, Bingbing Fan in X-Men 7, Sung Kang in Fast & Furious 6) and monsters (Godzilla, the kaiju of Pacific Rim, the aliens behind The Great Wall), and why even a barely successful, dimly remembered piece of junk like 2013's Escape Plan earned a sequel by relocating its one willing cast member to Shanghai. A little further up the movie food chain, we find this week's Crazy Rich Asians, Warner Bros.' attempt to catch the eye and loosen the pockets of a gilded diaspora audience by adapting Kevin Kwan's bestseller with the aid of a predominantly Asian cast. Jon M. Chu's film opens with a Napoleon quote - "Let China sleep, for when she awakens, she will shake the world" - which presumably resonated with the suits who troubled to read the script; it goes on to demonstrate that while China may well have woken up and come online as a source of income, those films targeting her remain quite some distance behind the curve.

The Meg, Warners' midsummer toe-dip in similar international waters, was such a Nineties throwback it hired the man behind Cool Runnings and While You Were Sleeping to oversee its amusing yet bloodless man-versus-shark activity. (The strictures of censorship in Asia mean Western productions aiming offshore will likely come bearing those 12A ratings that flag how the commercial cinema has willingly defanged itself, for varying levels of profit, over the past two decades.) CRA is, for its part, a homage to those bright-and-breezy nuptial romcoms that were a matter of standard back when Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan were in the ascendant, but which were brutally stomped all over by the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Gerard Butler in the years following the millennium, and now exist mostly on Netflix life support. You could cheer the fact that the prospect of easy overseas money has changed an industry paradigm - that a genre recently exiled to streaming platforms has been returned to our megaplexes - or note with regret that, creatively at least, the clock has been set back twenty years. More suited for discussion on the business than the arts pages, Crazy Rich Asians is another of this year's cinematic phenomena - not unlike Black Panther, that smashy-crashy-bang-bang movie successfully marketed as a revolutionary text - spun from the blandest of corporate fluff, a semi-expensive non-event movie with a script as dull as a press release, describing a wedding that may as well be a banking merger for all the legitimate romance and gaiety it conjures up.

From first smeary digital frame to last, it is recognisably the handiwork of Chu, a company man whose filmography - from his Step Up sequels to the Justin Bieber documentary - has rarely been troubled by depth or drama. Chu overlights every set-up, trowels on his soundtrack (Mandarin and Cantonese variants of familiar English-language hits, up to and including an icky last-reel cover of Coldplay's "Yellow") and seems at his happiest gathering shots of his wooden male leads' torsos, or constructing montages of food being prepared, positioning CRA as a popcorn Tampopo or Eat Drink Man Woman. Set it against the wisdoms of either of those films, and the whole thing looks doubly banal. After a dead-loss first act, set in place solely to get New York-based academic Rachel (Constance Wu) to a high-society wedding in Singapore, the film briefly crackles into life during a sequence that gathers funny people (Wu, Ken Jeong, Awkwafina) around the one dinner table, before defaulting to stock wedding-movie scenarios in which we're supposed to be swayed and seduced by the number of costume changes or flash cars on screen or the tallness of a hotel rather than anything being enacted. In terms of the com in its romcom, the film's meek, overpopulated soap opera leaves CRA light years behind a show like Fresh Off the Boat, the Disney-produced sitcom centred on a Chinese-American family in Florida.

That show - a ratings-winner on ABC in the US, somewhat brusquely treated by 5USA in the UK - has spent four seasons being sublimely goofy, satirical, provocative and weird, and allowing Wu, playing the clan's hard-nosed mother, to display just about the best timing in the world right now. Here, she's limited to playing relatable - Rachel's an academic, ergo the one person on screen who isn't crazy rich - and waiting for her Mr. Right to take a knee. (Modern American movies have a habit of wronging TV's better players: Steve Carell's big-screen career only really took hold after he started turning down all those insipid nice-guy roles he was stuck with after The Office finished, and it still pains this viewer to see Parks & Rec's adorable clown Chris Pratt being cast as bestubbled lunks.) FOTB may be one of those lightning-in-a-bottle triumphs pop culture occasionally generates, but it's also a demonstration of how creatives can do the necessary work of representation and so much else besides. CRA, by contrast, has the look of another recent American movie doing the least possible amount of heavy lifting to get its hands on a lot of money: hiring a director with no great vision to film a book that's already been a hit so as to give an audience that just wants to know what it's like to attend a fancy reception a mildly diverting, immediately forgettable time. It is very rich (and getting richer by the week, according to the box-office reports), and certainly doesn't shortchange us on the Asians front, but is only as crazy, funny or otherwise interesting as watching a business deal being brokered.

Crazy Rich Asians is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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