Crazy Rich Asians is a joyous rom com revival
It’s rare the we get an honest-to-goodness romantic comedy at the box office any more. Sure there are plenty of young adult adaptations, usually featuring teens facing some awful tragedy that only their love can defeat, but I personally can’t remember the last time an adult rom-com made such a mainstream splash. And to have it be a largely Asian cast telling the story of both an Asian American woman and and a vast number of Singaporeans, Crazy Rich Asians can’t help but feel fresh and novel, although never a novelty. This is going to do big numbers, not just because of the representative aspect of its cast, crew, and content, but because it’s a joyous, universally relatable film in the tradition of the best mainstream rom-coms.
Constance Wu seems born for her role as Rachel Chu, a native New Yorker raised by a single mother. She is now a professor at the dawn of a promising career. Things are getting serious with her boyfriend, Singapore native, Nick Young (Henry Golding). He invites her to join him on a trip to his home country to attend a wedding and catch up with his family. What Rachel doesn’t know is that Nick’s family is rich. Crazy rich. Like, “his family has been the biggest real estate empire in the whole country for generations” rich. What follows is exactly what you’d expect. Culture clash on every front, be it based in identity, familial customs, or wealth disparity, a heavy strain is put on Rachel and Nick’s relationship, most notably in the form of Nick’s extremely traditional mother (Michelle Yeoh).
Rachel meets a variety of characters, all of whom are affected by money in different ways. Some good, some bad, all very colorful and entertaining. The bulk of the movie consists of watching Rachel navigate these new and unfamiliar relationships while trying to understand the forced re-contextualization of her romance with Nick. If Nick’s family was well off, it would be a big pill to swallow, but to find that this down to earth man has more money than God, and hefty familial obligations to boot, well, that’s a pretty big lie by omission. Relayed against Rachel’s troubles are a handful of adjacent permutations of “rich person involved with not rich person.” It’s amazing how much is explored regarding identity without weighing down the film too heavily with plot lines. Really there’s only one that I’d cut (which I imagine is much more fleshed out in the source novel), which would bring this 2 hour film down to a slightly friendlier runtime.
So are Nick’s friends and family crazy and rich or just crazy rich? Well, it’s both, really. Since money certainly heightens personality, the large supporting cast ends up providing the film’s humor. Sometimes it’s at the expense of a “head too high in the clouds” rich mentality, other times from Wu being a fish out of water. In the case of Wu’s very rich but not crazy rich friend, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina, who steals every moment she’s in), it’s in the form of smarmy commentary on excess and style. It should be noted that Awkwafina needs to be employed as regularly as possible both in fictional narratives (she steals Ocean’s 8 as well) and on red carpet events. She’s got a biting wit that is hard to describe, and I want more of it! Intermittently, the humor comes out in sharp moments of cultural criticism. “Eat up,” advises a Singaporean to his finicky daughter, “there are starving kids in America.”
Director Jon M. Chu shoots Singapore as a thing of true beauty, imbuing even the smaller scenes with design that feels (to me, an outsider) culturally significant. The film looks absolutely gorgeous at every moment, and features a solid soundtrack to boot. THERE’S A CHINESE COLDPLAY COVER. I like to believe that if the film were called Bland Middle Class White People, it would also feature a Chinese cover of Coldplay, albeit one that sounds folkier. I digress.
In all Crazy Rich Asians is a joy. As a piece of entertainment and a cultural moment where Asian people are being represented on screen in a big way, it’s worth checking out. There are three books in this series, and it would be a blast to see them all come to life. The Joy Luck Club came out 25 years ago. There’s no reason why it should take another quarter century for a movie of this flavor to pop up in our cultural melting pot again.
Crazy Rich Asians is playing in Philly theaters right now.