Friday Flicks: Young Heroines, Big Scary Houses

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Visual Arts Issue: August 2018
Group Free

What's in theaters this weekend:

Crazy Rich Asians—The title doesn’t refer to rich Asians who are crazy, but rather to Asians who are "crazy" rich. Our sweet New Yorker heroine, Rachel (Constance Wu), is neither crazy nor rich, though she admits that she’s socrazyrichasiansposter Asian she’s “an economics professor that’s lactose intolerant.” Her dreamy Singaporean boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) is another matter: When she finds herself in sumptuous ultra-first-class on the flight to meet his family for the first time, she asks him if they're rich, and when he carefully says “We’re…comfortable,” she’s knows she’s in trouble.

What ensues is yet another romantic-comedy variation on the deathless Cinderella theme, with a streak of modernized Jane Austen. Rachel arrives to find Nick’s family to be absurdly one-percent-of-the-one-percent Singapore old money. His forbidding mother (the always-commanding Michele Yeoh) disapproves of Rachel not only because of her commoner status but because of her disagreeable American traits like passion for her career and pursuit of her own happiness.

The reason for the visit is a wedding in which Nick is the best man, so a raft of other characters are introduced, siblings and aunties and cousins and old girlfriends and so on, most notably Nick’s cousin and childhood friend Astrid (the stunning Gemma Chan) who is in a troubled marriage to a not-rich Asian. We’re also introduced to Rachel’s old college pal Lin (Awkwafina) and her wacky nouveau-riche father (Ken Jeong) and family.

The first half or so of the film, directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the first in a trilogy of novels by Kevin Kwan, has a lighthearted chick-flick tone, with broad comedy and makeover montages and ogling of the opulence, not to mention of the boyfriend, in and out of his shirt. As the story progresses, however, it grows more dramatic, eventually taking on the feel of the soap opera in which Rachel feels she’s been cast as the gold-digging villainess. But of course she’s not—Wu makes her a charming, sensible heroine, and the dialogue is better than that of most soap operas.

It’s uncertain what judgment, if any, the filmmakers have toward the title characters. I couldn’t tell whether Crazy Rich Asians means to satirize the grotesque excesses of the class, or if it’s Dynasty/Dallas-style aspirational fantasy. Or a little of both.

In any case, what struck me is how many of the cultural reference points were Western, indeed American: The soundtrack is full of Asian versions of American pop songs, the wacky dad dresses like Elvis, one of Nick’s relatives is furious when he learns that pictures of his family will run in Hong Kong Vogue instead of American Vogue. For all the disdain the mother expresses toward American values, there’s no doubt that for these folks, America is the standard cultural currency.

Down a Dark Hall—Troubled but brilliant problem teen Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) gets packed off to a girl’s boarding school in an enormous old mansion. She’s one of only five other troubled but brilliant students, presided over bydownadarkhallposter headmistress Madame Dubet (Uma Thurman). The place is shadowy and creaky, with a wing that’s off limits to the students, of course, and a Frau Blucher-ish assistant for Madame Dubet. As the school year gets rolling, the students suddenly begin to display prodigal talents in music, math, art, poetry and so on.

Directed by Rodrigo Cortes (of 2010’s terrifying Buried) from Lois Duncan’s novel, the movie gets off to a low-key, briskly-paced start, seeming almost to roll its eyes ironically at the corny familiarity of its own gothic conceits. Gradually it shifts to whole-hog ghost story, with visual and thematic echoes of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, of Kubrick’s The Shining, even of last year’s Get Out.

I’m wimpy, and I can’t say I found this movie very scary. But the mystery at the heart of the paranormal activity is ingenious and original, and the acting is solid. Robb and her young classmates are spirited, yet touching in their vulnerability, and Thurman (dressed in costumes by Zac Posen!) has a fine time as the grand, imperious headmistress. Yet it seems impossible that she’s old enough to start playing Bette-Davis-Joan-Crawford-Tallulah-Bankhead-type crazy crones.

Opening at Harkins Arizona Mills.