A recipe that has long warranted moratorium status — the Cinderella formula — dominates “Falling for Grace,” which presents the fairy-tale heroine as a social climber with roots in Chinatown. The result is a striving but hackneyed indie that neither a Chinese-American ingredient nor an appealing lead performance can make fresh.
Largely the baby of newcomer filmmaker-actress Fay Ann Lee, the film is part romantic comedy and part immigrant-experience snapshot. Lee plays Grace Tang, a Chinatown-bred Wall Street investment banker who is so eager to fit into high society that after some wealthy socialites mistake her for another Grace Tang — a Hong Kong heiress — she goes along with the misunderstanding.
The deception hooks Grace up with ideal bachelor Andrew Barrington (Gale Harold), a rising prosecuting attorney with money and morals. As love blossoms, Grace — unable to maintain the charade forever — must embrace who she truly is.
Lee proves decent in front of the camera but shaky behind it. A likable screen presence, she convinces us that Grace deserves happiness. As a director, she presents Chinese-American life in a way that captures both the struggles of people like Grace’s hardworking China-born father, who is ailing and without health insurance, and the desperation with which some children of immigrants try to assimilate.
But her inexperienced steerage and a banal script (cowritten by Karen Rousso) give rise to clunky, shallow overall results.
Suggesting a mix of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Maid in Manhattan,” the movie contains nothing original or sparkling enough to enable it to overcome the rags-to-riches triteness at its core.
Clichés prevail — Andrew’s blond, superficial socialite fiancée, for starters. Lee cranks up the feel-good tone beyond credibility. Sweatshop labor gets the gloss-over. The romantic leads exhibit little chemistry.
Such weaknesses hamper the quality cast. This includes Lee herself, who, while vital, can’t, under Lee’s directing, score the emotional knockout that the movie needs. In a key realization scene, director Lee gives the primary close-up to Andrew, even though it is Grace’s eyes that should be radiating heartbreak into the camera. You wish Lee had shown more confidence in herself as an actor.
Falling for Grace **
Starring Fay Ann Lee, Gale Harold, Margaret Cho, Ken Leung
Written by Fay Ann Lee, Karen Rousso
Directed by Fay Ann Lee
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes