Crazy Rich Asians would have been a hell of a musical

A major reason that Crazy Rich Asians is a landmark is right up there on screen – it’s a big studio production made almost entirely with Asian and Asian-American performers, and before you even get to the many individual charms of those actors, there’s real distinction in watching an American movie without any white people in it, something that hopefully can become less rare in the coming years. But the movie is a big deal for representation behind the camera, too: It’s a dip into the romantic comedy and family drama genres from the talented and versatile Jon M. Chu, an Asian-American director whose career has so far included an unusual number of sequel jobs, as he was sent in to continue Step Up (with parts 2 and 3), G.I. Joe (part 2), and Now You See Me (part 2, and he’s attached to part 3). More often than not, he leaves a franchise in better shape than he found it; here he has the chance to start his own.

Chu’s skills as a franchise fixer were established with those Step Up sequels. The first movie is a dishwater-dull romance between a hip-hop dancer and a ballerina, but starting with Step Up 2 The Streets, the movies became spirited ensemble pieces emphasizing joyfully choreographed street-dancing sequences. I thought of the Step Up movies during Crazy Rich Asians, because as entertaining as the movie is, I couldn’t help but pine for the musical version Chu would have knocked out of the park.

Obviously, Crazy Rich Asians had plenty of challenges–adapting a best-selling novel, getting its casting right, selling the notoriously conservative big-studio system on a story about a human experience sans explosions–to take on before piling on the logistical nightmare of making a good musical (though the genre is perpetually more popular than its reputation; more big-studio musicals of the past decade-plus have been hits than not). But the desire for characters to burst into song and dance is natural watching Chu’s movies, even the ones that aren’t specifically about dancers.

Take G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It’s a better movie than its predecessor, Rise of Cobra, but most of it isn’t particularly memorable. What lingers, in fact, is a scene that doesn’t feature any of its big-name stars (Channing Tatum, Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis), but some ninjas fighting on the sides of mountains for reasons I could not explain to you beyond a vague recollection that the movie stops cold for this to happen and that it doesn’t have much to do with the main plot at hand. No matter. This sequence is wonderful and was obviously left in the movie because Chu loved it and directed the hell out of it.

On the surface, it’s gravity-defying CG nonsense. But Chu makes the swooping, whooshing, and slashing of these color-coded ninjas genuinely balletic, pushing the unrealness into a more satisfyingly cinematic realm, briefly making the idea of making a pseudo-live-action movie based on a toy line seem like a good one. Even the obligatory action-movie red-shirt sacrifices proceed with grace.

There’s a similarly showstopping quality to a CG-augmented heist sequence from Now You See Me 2, in which a team of magicians must hide a computer chip attached to a playing card, passing it between each other as they’re all thoroughly frisked by security. The sequence embraces its implausibility as Chu follows the card from sleeve to hand to inside a dress, and so on, sometimes using a virtual camera to zip along with it, a kind of dance scene in miniature. Its only crime is perhaps overstaying its welcome (it goes on longer than most musical numbers would dare), but it’s easily the most memorable part of the movie.

When Chu does make something closer to a proper musical, the results are exhilarating; though they don’t sing, his Step Up sequels are legitimately superior to most of the big Broadway adaptations of the past decade, and certain scenes, like his one-take street stroll in Step Up 3, are among the most charming contemporary musical sequences. With just two actors, some seemingly mundane props, and a quietly virtuosic camera, Chu generates the kind of energy and electricity that splashier musicals really have to sweat for. The climactic Step Up dances are more outwardly dazzling, and great fun.

The equivalent of these signature Chu scenes in Crazy Rich Asians is the wedding ceremony that happens around the two-thirds mark. Nick Young (Henry Golding) is the best man at his buddy’s opulent wedding in Singapore, to which he’s brought his girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). It’s been a source of discomfort for Rachel to learn that Nick is part of an unfathomably rich family, several members of which quickly decide that if Rachel (a successful and seemingly well-off NYU professor!) is not “enough” for their heir apparent. In the middle of this conflict comes someone else’s wedding, shot by Chu in gorgeously muted light and verdant scenery, with Nick and Rachel exchanging meaningful looks as the ceremony unspools around them. But when the aisle floods with water that the bride wades delicately through to reach the alter, there’s a part of me that wished one of those water-dancing dudes from Step Up 2 would appear, whip his body around the aisle-puddles during a bass drop, and take the sequence to the next level. (How does such an elaborate, wedding-centric movie from a Step Up director get by with so relatively little dancing?)

Yes, yes, puddle-dancing might spoil the delicate emotion of the moment. But in general, Chu communicates better in montages, or when the scenes calls for him to move his camera around, than when he’s forced to keep things buttoned-up and traditional. There are some quiet moments in Crazy Rich Asians that work, especially when dealing with Rachel’s realization that her experience as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant is not especially balanced with the experiences of people who grew up in Singapore, especially with obscene amounts of money weighing down one side of the scales.

But Crazy Rich Asians purports to be at least kind of a romantic comedy, and that material–the romantic dizziness twirling into farce, in surroundings that are perfectly suited for a rush of euphoria followed by comic skepticism–is best served when Chu is allowed to explore: a sequence of one-shots of characters (there are so, so many characters) Rachel meets at a Young family party; the camera flowing through a well-appointed mansion crowded with wealthy revelers; that dreamlike wedding ceremony. These are the moments that Crazy Rich Asians feels primed to lift off, and sometimes it does, briefly, and it’s certainly watchable even when it’s not airborne. But the Chu, an empathetic Constance Wu, and a nuanced Michelle Yeoh aren’t always enough to overcome a romantic interest who’s mostly “romantic” in that he is very (very) good-looking, and not comic at all. The movie’s would-be zingers, presumably some of which come from the source material, are miss-and-hit; the movie’s best shot at comedy comes from the goggle-eyed amazement over the gap between Rachel’s and Nick’s world.

Chu nearly pulls it off, fizzing things up even when the exposition-heavy dialogue isn’t giving him much help. His direction is slick but not smarmy, light but not empty-headed. But like so many contemporary adaptations, this one seems to place respect for its source material ahead of any number of other concerns. It’s something Chu was doubtless happy to do, as this is a movie a lot of people have been waiting for a long time, and it’s understandable that this isn’t the one where he finally gets to burst into song. But as long as he keeps crafting such memorable sequences, buzzing with that musical potential, I’ll still be waiting.