Crazy Rich Asians:
Being the first to break any sort of social barrier is seldom an enviable position. For every Jackie Robinson that smashed their way into the history books and forever changed the world around them, how many tormented souls melted under the scorching heat lamp of public opinion? That’s why in the end, as scattershot and flawed as it was at times, Crazy Rich Asians is such a satisfying success. The first contemporary, all Asian film in nearly three decades produced by a major Hollywood studio, Crazy Rich Asians was forced to carry more on its back than its story’s modest mixture of romantic comedy and disapproving parents. As Asian immigration to America skyrocketed over the last few decades, the supposedly purely capitalist sentiments of Hollywood ignored the chance to capitalize on a potentially major, untapped demographic. In the ever-increasing media frenzy in the months leading up to its release though, Crazy Rich Asians was hailed as the cultural touchstone that was going to change everything. And while not by any means a historically great movie, a charming (and suitably gorgeous) cast and an excess of funny moments make the picture a crucial blast.
Based off the smash hit novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians follows a pair of perfectly suited lovers as they attempt to navigate the murky waters of family, love, loyalty, and money across the spectacular neon skyline of Singapore. The movie stars Constance Wu (from Fresh Off the Boat fame) as the sweet-natured Rachel, a first-generation Chinese-American economics professor, and Henry Golding (a long time travel host with looks that would make a prime Paul Neuman blush) as Nick Young, the super rich but gold-hearted heir to an unfathomably powerful real estate company based back in his home of Singapore. This latter note provides the primary conflict for the film, as Nick decides to take Rachel back for his best friend’s wedding and in doing so reveals his family’s true “royal” status to her. Rachel, like most viewers I’m sure, is instantly struck by the magnificent mix of sizzling street food and impossible, grandiose architecture (as she quips upon arrival: “I can’t believe this airport has a butterfly garden and a movie theatre. JFK is just salmonella and despair.”) And yet while her fish out of water experience in the lavish yet foreign playgrounds of Singapore provides a constant and thoroughly successful source of amusement throughout the film, it does not ultimately provide an obstacle for her relationship with Nick.
No, as is expected in romcoms as the sun rising in the morning, parental approval (or more so disapproval) is the decisive element.
Nick’s mother, the glowering Eleanor Young (played with phenomenal zeal by legendary Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh) is, to say the least, not happy with Nick’s choice of Rachel. To Eleanor, Rachel is simply a low-class American distraction for Nick (a “banana” as one of the characters puts it) who should instead choose his family and predetermined path. Yet despite Eleanor’s socially conservative attitudes which may make her seem weaker than the Robert De Niro parental adversaries of the past, Michelle Yeoh’s displays an unnerving steely-eyed gaze and unwavering cunning in early scenes that help instantly establish her as a worthy and sympathetic antagonist.
In fact, it is this more nuanced and endearing look at old-fashioned Asian ideals that provide some of the more interesting and (probably for many Asian-American viewers) relatable moments. However, the movie never seems interested in truly digging deeper into the far more complex and interesting subjects of cultural and parental morality. For every small glimpse we get of the familial philosophy of dumpling making, obnoxious and over the top catfights, bland cliches, and a weak attempt at a subplot involving Nick’s sister are there to undercut the film. And while the magnificent displays of wealth offer jaw-dropping entertainment for a while, it becomes hard to stomach the film’s florid fantasy of a borderline Hunger Games display of excess (especially in the context of the region’s every increasing wealth inequality).
But of course, Crazy Rich Asians never needed to be a transcendent social commentary. Success meant making a delightful romantic comedy, and that it does to a considerable extent. After several bargain bin movies, director Jon Chu (of considerably less flashy GI JOE: Retaliation fame) finally gets the chance to put his own flourish on a movie in the big leagues. And flourish he does as whatever the script lacks in complex analysis of its subjects, Chu makes up for in dazzling shots of Eastern wealth, food, and culture. We as the audience have the pleasure to feast on endless, mouth-watering displays of meats and soups and noodles and dumplings, mashed end on end with a rapid succession of colorful cuts and tied together with an orchestral of sizzling grills and boiling pots and the scrape of quickly emptying plates. At the same time, we are blinded by the flashes of orange, green, and purple fireworks which illuminate the futuristic opulence of dramatic water features and towering yet undeniably beautiful buildings.
And while the light and safe nature of the script, which was written by the duo of Adele Lim (Lethal Weapon TV show) and Peter Chiarelli (Now You See Me 2), is ultimately its biggest downfall, it still provides a funny and occasional misty-eyed backing from which the cast can really shine. Breakout star Awkwafina, who plays Rachel’s old college friend with the eccentric and comedic delight of a young Jack Nicholson, and her screen dad Ken Jeong (The Hangover) are just two of a host of colorful characters that shine throughout the movie.
So while the messy spectacle of beauty and comedy and adorable love never amounts to an all-time great work of film, it still succeeds in being an enjoyable movie. For so many Asian Americans that much of popular culture has forgotten for far too long, it’s colorful competence is nothing short of a triumph.