ON FILM: Underserved minorities deserve to make fair movies, just like anyone else in Hollywood

Posted: September 7, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Nico Santos and Michelle Yeoh in a scene from Crazy Rich Asians, a perfectly fi ne romantic comedy that has been hailed as a breakthrough because of its predominantly Asian cast. But is it really worth all the hype?

I doubt this will win me any friends, or that it needs to be said, but I thought Crazy Rich Asians was just OK.

It was pretty much what I expected it would be, which is a disappointment, but not a condemnation, because I understand why some people love the movie. There is something good about depicting onscreen people of a different ethnic heritage from those who are generally depicted. It is good to see the world we know reflected in the worlds we wish we knew, and Crazy Rich Asians is the sort of aspirational fantasy that appeals to all sorts of people who look to the movies for what they call escape.

I also understand that I'm not of that demographic, because I'm someone who sees, by choice and professionally, hundreds of movies every year. Which means my points of reference are necessarily different from someone who sees maybe a dozen films in theaters and uses television recreationally.

Like a lot of people, I enjoy a good romantic comedy. But unlike most people, my idea of a good romantic comedy runs more to Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) or Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977) than upscale fairy tales. Crazy Rich Asians hits all the familiar beats and resolves all the audience's anxieties for its surrogate -- who, refreshingly, happens to be played by Constance Wu, an American whose parents are Taiwanese immigrants.

It's a good enough movie, especially early on where its keenness is best demonstrated by a scene in which a sneaked cellphone photo starts a silent social media firestorm. But it's just not the game-changing movie we've all been led to expect, not so much by critics (though the reviews have been kind and in some cases gushy) as by the word of mouth. (Note to self: Word of mouth is infamously unreliable. You should know this.)

Much has been made of Crazy Rich Asians' casting, and how it is the first Hollywood movie to feature a predominantly Asian cast since Wayne Wang filmed Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Maybe that's technically true, but a better and more important film featuring a predominantly Asian cast came out in 2003. Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow (now streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now) polarized audiences when it was shown at Sundance Film Festival in 2003. A post-screening question-and-answer session with the filmmakers turned into a shouting match, with some in attendance characterizing the film as racist. The eminence grise of American movie critics, Roger Ebert, rose to his feet (or in one version, stood on his chair) to defend the film.

There was a lot of hype and buzz about the movie at the time, a lot of which having to do with how director Justin Lin financed its $250,000 budget on credit cards. The movie starred a 30-year-old high school drama teacher, Parry Shen, as 17-year-old Ben, the embodiment of a certain kind of Asian stereotype (one that recurs in Crazy Rich Asians). Ben is assured of admittance into an Ivy League college, but he's piling up achievements in a kind of empty game. He shoots 215 free throws a day as a benchwarmer on his high school basketball team. He volunteers at a hospital. He's aiming for a perfect SAT score.

Ben and his small circle of similarly situated friends live in the anomic suburbs of Orange County, a strange and parentless place where affluent good kids cruise for trouble, devising elaborate shoplifting schemes and rolling houses. Ben -- it's not an accident the name echoes that of the Dustin Hoffman character in The Graduate-- is drawn into a more serious mode of acting out when the editor of the school newspaper, Daric (Roger Fan), writes an article suggesting he's a token Asian presence on the basketball team. Ben quits the team in disgust when some students begin to call for him to get more playing time.

When he confronts Daric, the editor/tennis player/academic decathlon captain offers him a job preparing crib sheets to be sold to less academically gifted members of the class. Ben's goofy sidekick Virgil (Jason Tobin) demands to be part of the action, and soon a regular "Chinese Mafia" is pulling various scams around the school.

When a white kid disses one of the gang at a party, the escalation from drunken fistfight to brutal beatdown is sudden; the disproportionate retaliation hints at a previous unglimpsed reservoir of grievance. Until the party scene, you could believe that these kids were perfectly assimilated, un-hypenated Americans less segregated from their classmates by the cast of their skin than their penchant for fulfilling parental expectations.

Unfortunately, this is also the moment when this smart little movie slips from a remarkable anthropological study into a sensational if well-realized genre picture. Now the geeky sidekick evolves into a violent loose cannon, and Ben morphs into Goodfellas' Henry Hill. Even the film's feel of flat naturalism, a sense of foreboding ennui, gives way to a giddy, electric vibe. Paradoxically, as the kids slouch toward Gomorrah -- the National Academic Decathlon is held in Las Vegas! -- the film starts to feel more familiar, less discomfiting. It becomes a gangster picture.

It's a way better movie than Crazy Rich Asians.

It's a breakthrough when people from under-represented groups are allowed to make something big and ordinary; part of gaining full entry into society is being able to be mediocre. Crazy Rich Asians ought to be allowed to be exactly what it is, an fizzy escapist peek at the glamorous lives of very rich people.

Similarly, Black Panther is a well-made superhero film that, like every superhero film I've ever seen, eventually corrupted into a lot of noise and action. I didn't enjoy it until I watched it while listening to director Ryan Coogler's commentary track. His insights into why certain choices were made is far more interesting to me than anything in the onscreen fictional world. The making of the movie is sometimes more compelling than the movie itself.

That doesn't mean that Black Panthert shouldn't exist -- it obviously has an important place in the culture. It means a lot to a lot of people. It's a social good.

Even if I think it's only an OK movie.

Email:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

www.blooddirtangels.com

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MovieStyle on 09/07/2018