Hello, Mrs. Money

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/08/18 06:42:57

"Does a bit more than dress old material up in new clothes."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Hello, Mrs. Money" is a classic cross-dressing farce, but it comes by that pedigree honestly - it's adapted from Brandon Thomas's stage comedy "Charley's Aunt" first performed in London back in 1892 and Broadway soon after. That its translation and adaptation from British play to Chinese play to Chinese movie to subtitling for worldwide release means that "Cha Li" gets referred to as "Richard" throughout the film is an amusing bit of extra trivia, but it's kind of fitting - the movie tends to find something funny even when it makes weird or screwy choices.

"Richard" (Song Yang) has come to Aman Island in Malaysia for a splashy engagement party where he'll officially propose to Lulu, the boss's daughter whom he's been seeing for five years. She's not enthusiastic, but father Andy Wang is having money trouble, and Richard has a rich but reclusive aunt who could make that go away. Also strapped for cash is Mr. Liang, the mentally unstable father of Richard's best friend Jerry (Allen Ai Lun), who also happens to be married to Lulu's sister Lily. He's ready to swim with the sharks so his son can get the insurance, but Jerry persuades him to try something else - there is a rich widow on the way, after all. That she apparently isn't could be disaster for everyone except maybe Huang Canghai (Huan Cailun), Jerry's assistant who takes the opportunity to crash in Aunt Monica's fabulous suite - until he's discovered and persuaded to impersonate the seldom-seen woman. This would probably be a bad plan even without the wild card where Monica (Celina Jade) has come ashore and disguised herself as a hotel maid to find out if Richard and Lulu are for real or just after her money.

It's a dumb plan, but it's the sort of dumb plan that makes for good farce, necessitating funny voices, trying to take a phone call from the other person in the room, being in two places at once, very much unwanted romantic attention, situations that look compromising because they're seen at the exact wrong moment, and all that good stuff. Writers Qian Chenguang and Wu Jinrong do an impressive job of taking all those building-block scenes and figuring out the way that they can stack up without collapsing, letting director Wu Yuhan and the talented cast play most of the movie fairly straight-ahead rather than twisting things around to keep them from falling apart. Sure, this story isn't exactly what one might call likely, but the unspoken assumption that people believe what they want or need to believe does a lot of work, as does just not having characters who could mess things up in a scene and letting the audience fill in why, if they care, rather than contorting things in a way that makes the viewer work.

The other thing that the filmmakers do that isn't necessarily a given with this sort of comedy is play up the good intentions. They can be mean-spirited Rube Goldberg machines, built entirely on selfishness and simple motivations, even if, as in this case, the ultimate message is that this sort of greed and materialism is self-destructive (it's one of those movies that wants to show prosperity but preach against avarice). Still, it's notable that Richard is laid-back enough that actor Song Yang is able to convince us that he mostly just really likes Lulu despite the insanity around him, while Allen Ai's Jerry is worried about his dad more than anything. They're funny performances - Ai especially is entertainingly frantic and prone to panic - although it would be nice if Lulu and Lily were given even half as much to do as their significant others.

The whole thing falls apart without Huang Cailun's performance, though. It's not exactly restrained, but he's given much less gay panic than you might expect, and there's a lot of fun in how he starts out as frazzled and put-upon as Canghai and goes for different sorts of alarm as "Monica", especially once he starts getting into it. He's good at the physical comedy, but it's the facial expressions and body language that sell it best; he's got a sort of uncanny-valley look under the wig, costume, and ridiculous falsetto that's half-convincing and half-absurd. Celina Jade is fun as the real Monica, imbuing her with just the right sort of cleverness, confidence, and mischief to act as a wild-card despite sometimes being a little flat in her delivery, although it often seems like the filmmakers don't quite know what to do with her: It seems like there should be a flip-side to this movie about the wealthy, reclusive woman not really knowing how to do working-class things, but that never quite emerges, to the point where the audience sometimes wonders what she's up to and why.

On the other hand, trying to explain everything can be death to this sort of fast-moving comedy, and it's much more entertaining to try and have a joke every thirty seconds or so. That's been the biggest constant for comedy troupe Mahua's movies over the last few years - like "Hello, Mrs. Money", both "Goodbye Mr. Loser" and "Never Say Die" had ridiculous premises and just plowed through to the jokes and have been the better for it. There's still some parts of this one that seem a bit stuck in 19th Century England, but it's nevertheless funny and relevant 120 years later and half a world away, which is both a sign of how little some things change and one heck of an impressive bit of reinvention.

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