Crazy Rich Asians
Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Kris Aquino, Lisa Lu, Nico Santos, Ken Jeong, Michelle Yeoh
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…to decry it because it’s just a fairy tale is to miss the point entirely.
The first thing you need to make note of is that there is no comma in that title. As in the source novel by Kevin Kwan, the Asians in question are not, in the main, crazy and rich (although YMMV) but “crazy rich” – upper echelon ethnic Chinese Singaporeans absolutely dripping, and sometimes nearly drowning, in wealth and power, the scions of old business dynasties who think nothing of private jets, bachelor parties in international waters, 30 million dollar weddings, and other acts and signifiers of glaringly conspicuous consumption. At one point a pair of $1.2M antique earrings are deployed as a symbol of personal freedom – for a character who laments she may have to stay in one of the 14 apartment buildings she owns.
Into this milieu is thrust Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, effortlessly charming), of hard working, hardscrabble immigrant stock, who is surprised to learn that her handsome, charismatic boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding, given pitifully little to do except look good) is effectively Singapore’s Prince William when she accompanies home for a family wedding. Dropped into a social shark tank, Rachel is circled by avaricious would-be wives who view her as a gold-digging interloper, and looked down upon by Nick’s disapproving, family-first mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, magnificent), who thinks this Asian-American girl doesn’t have the steel and sense of duty necessary to be the wife Nick needs. Can Rachel overcome these formidable obstacles and win her rightful place at Nick’s side?
Well, of course she bloody can. While Crazy Rich Asians has quite rightfully won plaudits for Asian representation (it is, as we have been ceaselessly told, the first major American film to feature a majority-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club) it is, at base, a romantic comedy, and that means it follows certain forms and hits certain expected beats.
It’s generally successful in doing so, too. Director Jon M. Chu, who cut his teeth on the Step Up dance movies, is a sumptuous visual stylist who takes great pains to draw us into this incredibly exotic and luxurious world, his camera dwelling on glittering lights and rich textures, dark rainforest woods, light, silky fabrics and gleaming jewels (and incredible food – at times CRA feels like a tourism promo for Singapore). Like many of its genre mates, from Pretty Woman to Sex and the City to, yeah, even Fifty Shades, Crazy Rich Asians is lifestyle porn, and though it takes a few vague stabs at the nobility of self-enforced poverty, it’s really about Rachel proving herself worthy of joining this rarefied clique, where everyone is beautiful, bachelor parties in international waters are the norm, and glamorous shopping expeditions are but a private helicopter ride away.
Which is gauche, of course, but Constance Wu’s disarming performance carries the day – we can just about believe she actually sees something in Nick, who is not so much a character as a life support system for a set of abs. Rachel’s journey and the choices she faces would have more resonance if Nick ever came across as an actual person rather than a symbol – even when the film pivots to his point of view for a few scenes, he never feels like an actual person with their own wants and drives.
It’s the supporting cast who do a lot of the heavy lifting in that department, and thank god for Awkwafina as Goh, Rachel’s Singaporean college roommate, who at least has the sense to realise how absurd the world she inhabits is, and Nico Santos as Cousin Oliver, a flamboyantly gay family fixer who acts as our guide to the convoluted familial dynamics. That is also par for the rom-com course – remember Laura San Giacomo in Pretty Woman? While Awkwafina and Santos are funny as hell, their narrative function is to remind our heroine of who and where she is – but never to such a degree that the structures of class and privilege that underpin the whole concern are questioned or challenged (the one minor character who does this is treated as a villain).
But we’re here for the confection, right? The magnificent artifice of it all! One would hope so – otherwise you’re in for a bad couple of hours, which is a shame when Crazy Rich Asians wants to show you such a good time, complete with what may very well be the single most glamorous wedding ever committed to film. Crazy Rich Asians is, to once again cite Pretty Woman, Cinder-fuckin-ella, and to decry it because it’s just a fairy tale is to miss the point entirely.