As part of the revival of Film Misery, we are pleased to re-introduce our Quick Takes column, where each week a contributor offers an inventory of the most noteworthy movies they’ve watched, usually in the shape of a capsule review. You’re encouraged to to talk about the movies you’ve watched this past week as well, either in the comments below or over on our Facebook page.
Crazy Rich Asians
It’s as understandable as it is easy to chide Crazy Rich Asians for matching every familiar beat of the conventional romantic comedy. Though I can’t say I’ve read even a page of Kevin Kwan’s source novel (I’m tempted now, however, to book a cross-country flight just for an excuse to read the whole damn series), I’d be kidding myself to say I didn’t recognize every romantic twist and comic turn of this upper-middle-class Cinderella story a few scenes—if not a full movie—in advance.
Counting on the same familiar, even tired tropes to get a romantic comedy to the screen was enough to have killed a lot folks’ good will for the entire subgenre. (Maybe I’m just talking about myself, but the genre’s not exactly been cooking lately.) But director Jon M. Chu brings a personalized energy that, if it doesn’t necessarily augment Crazy Rich Asians beyond its over-familiar storytelling, it at least reminds viewers just how gratifying even an ostensible cookie-cutter Hollywood product can feel when handled with a sprite and perspective.
By “perspective,” I don’t just mean the movie’s incalculable cultural value as the first of its size in about a quarter century to feature a nearly exclusively Asian cast, or to center meaningfully around an Asian American experience. (Though I do recommend some of the terrific writing that milestone’s inspired.) I also mean the perspective Chu finds in Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli’s script as Constance Chen’s Rachel navigates the politics of a family buttressed by their exorbitant wealth and—not coincidentally—an aggressive protectionary streak. Chen and her screen adversary, a fearsomely understated Michelle Yeoh as the family matriarch Eleanor Young, vibrantly embody those politics as we understand just how deeply a family history dictates its own progression, or lack thereof, from one generation to the next.
As for the sprite of Crazy Rich Asians, I struggle to recall the last time I’ve been so taken with a movie’s celebration of consumer-driven excess. From its impeccable choice of music covers to its zippy editing—a colorful sequence where Eleanor learns of Rachel’s existence from a candid pic-gone-viral is one of my favorite depictions this year of modern technology—there is a surefootedness to the storytelling that both embraces the decadent behavior of the obscenely beautiful people of the Young family orbit while retaining a meager (but at least present) ambivalence of how it’s warped everybody within the gravitational pull. It makes certain lavish moments, like a killer wedding scene, feel glorious while keeping us 99-percenters at a respectably judgy distance.
The movie’s far from perfect. A subplot involving a Young sister (Gemma Chan) and her husband’s infidelity hinges on an arc of self-realization that badly muddles Chu’s meager ambivalence toward depicting ultra-wealth. And though I will happily follow Akwafina to her next big project, her character’s family—particularly Ken Jeong and Calvin Wong’s creeper brother—sour most of the scenes they enter. But for a movie this brimming with excess, with color, with energy, these missteps are forgivable, especially for the best major release of this summer.
Everything wrong with Jon Turtletaub’s The Meg can be distilled to one simple problem: the shark is too damn big.
Now, before you write off this take off as uselessly obtuse—the eponymous creature, after all, is based on a geologically factual prehistoric beast—I’ll try to explain. Movies like The Meg violate my firm (if unofficial and not-totally-inflexible) rule demanding proportionality in a perfectly oversized movie monster. If your gargantuan occupies too much space on the screen, and your puny, scurrying humans occupy too little, the urgency and viscerality of the carnage gets lost, and all that terror and death feels just a touch too obscure. To wit, this is why the King Kong ape from 1933 (and even 2005) feels a bit more menacing than last year’s souped-up version, effortlessly (and tediously) swatting helicopters like mosquitos. On the other end of the spectrum, this explains why Godzilla, a clear analogue about mass nuclear annihilation, doesn’t usually suffer from proportionality issues.
And finally, this explains why Bruce, the seaborne Michael Meyers of Jaws, cuts through his victims with a lot more credulity than Turtletaub’s Megalodon, despite outsizing that great white thrice over.
The best suspense in The Meg comes toward the beginning of the movie, ironically, when the Meg is at its most obscured. As the deep-sea scientists scour an untouched corner of the sea, blazing a trail to release the “Meg” from her 60 million-year prison, Turtletaub capitalizes on his humans’ limited visibility for thrills, asking viewers to share some preliminary terror as some (ostensibly) unknown force pummels the seacraft back and forth. But it’s the thrills that grow less obscure the more we finally see of the Megalodon. To the extent you demand credulity in your monster movies—even the silliest ones—it’s difficult to buy fully into the shark’s obsession with picking off one blueberry-sized human after another with zero plausible chance they’d survive an encounter. (I wanted to scream at the Meg there are literally bigger fish in the sea.) The reasons for the Meg’s outsized rampage feel little more discernable than “this is how monster movies are supposed to go.”
Had The Meg set its stakes at a slightly grander scale—it does come maddeningly close toward the finale, on a massively popular beach-cum-buffet, before its PG-13 rating calls its bluff—I might have had more good, wholesome, sharkey fun. And in complete fairness to The Meg, it’s perfectly diverting and MoviePassable schlock. It features a decent international cast, led by the reliably on-brand Jason Statham and a quite charming Bingbing Li. And yes, I’ll grant that the Meg is indeed hella big.
If, like me, you were primarily interested in The Meg for its promise of mega-monster mayhem, expect to be sated. Just don’t expect a new classic. And remember that bigger isn’t necessarily better.