Best known until now as a director of Step Up sequels, a Justin Bieber concert movie and flop flicks about G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms, Jon M. Chu seems an unlikely helmer of one of the first nearly all Asian American ensembles since 1993’s Joy Luck Club and one of the most satisfying romantic comedies since 1990’s Pretty Woman or 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, but here’s his film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians (A-), and it’s bliss. Although not a musical, the film simply sings. Although not entirely a fairy tale, it’s enchanting. Chu’s star is born, a crouching tiger ready to unabashedly entertain, and he draws spectacular chemistry from the luminous Constance Wu and the dashing Henry Golding. She’s a Chinese American professor invited to accompany her humble boyfriend to a wedding in his Singapore homeland where she quickly discovers he’s part of one of the country’s most wealthy families and heir to a fortune. Hilarity and heartbreak are in store abroad. Michelle Yeoh is incredibly fierce portraying the perfectionist matriarch-antagonist as a battle royale unfolds between family duty and the messiness of love. The film is splashy, soapy and sensational; you’ll want to book a trip to the opulent, exotic city it depicts: a place of glistening razzle dazzle dancing and locales, of kaleidoscopic fashion and costumes. The film veers into a few arch moments threatening to tonally derail it, but the committed cast members remain jubilant journeymen. American rapper Awkafina is a hoot as Wu’s sassy sidekick. There are also two popular American songs sung in the film’s native tongue, adding extra glitter and throwback to Chu’s fanciful fantasia. In a year when racial representation on screen has already delivered a stellar superhero film, it’s lovely to have such an enjoyable escapist romcom from the Asian perspective. This is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.
Note: The film opens wide August 15, 2018 after buzz building sneak previews. #CrazyRichAsians #GoldOpen
There’s a fine line between a hot flash and a hot mess, and Sally Field plays nearly every facet of an amazing woman coming into her own late in life as the title character of Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name is Doris (B+). Although some sequences and snippets of the screenplay veer into overly broad comedy (it’s no accident that Field’s supporting cast includes talented sitcom stars Max Greenfield, Wendy McLendon-Covey and Beth Behrs), the pulsing heart of the film is the protagonist’s journey of self-acceptance and renewal. After the death of the mother she cared for most of her adult life, Field’s awkward ad agency accountant becomes romantically fixated with Greenfield’s charming millennial creative director who has given her some suspicious side-glances. We are in delight watching Doris grow giddy as a schoolgirl; and while we root for her, we also ponder how to solve a problem like this sheltered high-flying “nun”-derkind breaking free of her self-imposed convent and getting her groove back. Showalter finds fun and pathos in the generational juxtaposition: everything old is cool again, from knitting clubs to artisan cocktails to day-glow vintage fashions. The film is every bit a commentary on ageism as it is a good-natured ribbing of hipster culture. Tyne Daly is a highlight in the best friend role of this unconventional romcom, and it’s nifty to see women in their sixties bond and bicker with the best of ’em. Grace notes include awkward set-ups and awakenings, a spirited soundtrack and an empathy for Doris even when we’re cringing at some of her most ill-advised antics. Field is really the reason it all works, and she brings out her best in playing the truth of her character while leveraging the subversiveness of her comedic chops. Equally resonant to all who are young at heart, this Hello is welcome.
Writer/director Richard Curtis, famous for Love Actually, is a master of capturing great emotional details but getting lost in the big picture, so it’s no surprise that his romantic time travel dramedy About Time (B-) is a lovable mess. Despite massive tonal shifts and meandering to subplots that distract from the central plot, it is cute and thoughtful nonetheless. Domhnall Gleeson smartly plays the reluctant hero who finds out as a young man from his father (a tender and restrained Bill Nighy) that the men in their family can travel in time and alter their fates. Enter Rachel McAdams, the woman with whom Gleeson wants to get everything right; and enter entanglements and plot holes aplenty as this British Groundhog Day weaves its magic spell. The premise is far-fetched and occasionally a little creepy; and yet still the charming performers keep pace with crackling dialogue and poignant moments. The wish fulfillment angle doesn’t jive completely since there’s really no reason the protagonist needs sci-fi tricks to get the girl. But ultimately the witty banter and generally winning ensemble make it a quite watchable affair.
A most genius first hour squandered a bit for its remaining two acts, writer/director Spike Jonze’s Her (B) is an ambitious dramedy analyzing the bits and bytes of relationships. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as the lonely protagonist who falls in love with a coquettish computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johannson. Although some similar themes were plumbed in Electric Dreams (oddly in 1984), Jonze makes a flimsy premise fresh and affecting. Setting this romance in an unspecified future gives the filmmakers some poignant portals to examine human rituals from a higher plane. The film soars most when the cyber siren summons the best in our hero, challenging him to experience the world anew. But there’s a point in which the audience has likely moved on, and Jones continues to belabor his themes. Woody Allen’s theory that comedies should clock in at no longer than 90 minutes would have been aptly applied here. A series of sequences bookended by snowfall could be edited out almost entirely, leaving a leaner and more consistently entertaining movie in its wake.
Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer (B+) is a charming and sophisticated romantic comedy featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as young people searching for love amidst the iciness and irony of modern Los Angeles. The film is enriched by its nonlinear structure in which the 500 primary days of the central duo’s relationship are told out of order. Gordon-Levitt is the revelation here as the greeting card writer who aspires to put his sunny solicitations to good use and ultimately his actual architecture skills to work in building a legacy. For a debut feature, Webb’s work is remarkably assured. It’s a funny valentine to being young and a bit confused, and the film’s unusual structure ultimately gives it the propulsive force that makes it move in its own distinctive and inspiring way.