Crazy Rich Asians and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Jon M Chu
Do you remember the last time an Asian man or an Asian women were the protagonist or even the romantic interest in a Romantic Comedy? The last one I can think of was Hayden Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen, and even then the role was rather tertiary. Thankfully we have the director of Jem and the Holograms (ugh…) making a movie that not only centers Asian actors in the leading roles, but is filled to the brim with Asian actors the same way… well ninety-four percent of films are with white actors. Does this Romantic Comedy turn out to be one of the better examples of the genre on top of being a huge boon for representation in Hollywood, or is this a great opportunity that is ultimately squandered by a less than stellar outing from Jon M Chu? Let’s find out!!
Rachel and Nick (Constance Wu and Henry Golding) have been going out for some time now and are enjoying their pretty average life in New York City with her being a College Professor of Economics and him… actually I’m not sure what he does, but they’re just great together and Rachel couldn’t be happier! All that changes however when Nick tells her that his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) is getting married in Singapore, which is where his family JUST SO HAPPENS to live, and that it’d be great if she would go with him. On top of that, Rachel’s college friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) lives in Singapore too and she’s been meaning to visit, so why the heck not? It’d be nice to meet his family, right? WRONG!! As it turns out, Nick is SUPER rich and comes from a wealthy as heck family which comes as a surprise for Rachel, so now she has to deal with Rich People Problems and being looking down upon for being a lowly… professor. Hey, when you’re as rich as Nick’s family is, being a professor might as well earn you minimum wage! And so Rachel’s vacation/torture begins as she gets to experience the opulence of Nick’s life while also fending off his controlling mother (Michelle Yeoh), a jealous ex-girlfriend (Jing Lusi), and anything else this new world wants to throw at her! Will she be able to make it through the weekend with her mental health and dignity in tact? What does it mean for her relationship with Nick if this is the family that she’d be a part of? How the heck did the guy behind Jem and the Holograms turn out to be THIS talented!? Why did that even happen if he’s capable of doing something like this!?
This movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel as far as Romantic Comedies go, but instead its strength is in whom they cast and the filmmakers behind the camera. The fact that this is an all Asian cast with an Asian director is not some box ticking cynically progressive move as I assume SOME people believe it to be; rather it’s baked into the very core of what this movie is and it’s not often we get a film THIS enjoyable despite being on a surface level just another entry in the genre. The attention to detail is enlightening with the sheer amount of culture on display and it represents a side of Asian life that we have very little to no exposure to in the West; especially in Hollywood films. Now I love me some Jackie Chan martial arts action, but it’s extremely noticeable how rarely Asian actors get to be in roles that don’t specifically call for them to fill those kinds of roles with even fewer chosen for leading roles.
The movie is one of those BIG ensemble cast films that call to mind Love Actually on the good end of the spectrum and the later works of Garry Marshall on the latter, though admittedly there’s a lot more focus in this one as the plot gives everyone a reason to be in the same place instead of just following half a dozen separate stories. It can honestly be a bit difficult to keep track of as there are SO many characters on screen (Nick mentioned one annoying friend, but now there’s two of them?) but the ones who get the most screen time are definitely fun to watch and have surprisingly compelling story. Gemma Chan’s Astrid in particular takes a character who could have just been a two dimensional somewhat woke rich girl (she’s nice to kids, but also throws money around) but her arc in the movie is the single strongest in the film as her relationship to her working class husband takes a turn that you really don’t see or expect given how often stories like this tend to go in a certain direction; and she sells the material absurdly well given she’s mostly relegated to secondary storyline. Similarly, Awkwafina is in the movie for a decent amount of time and manages to steal the scene every chance she gets; especially when we get to meet her family as well as her father played by Ken Jeong who’s funnier here than he’s been in quite some time. Really, everyone in here gives everything they’ve got to these performances, and while some can be a bit less compelling than others (I thought Constance Wu and Henry Golding were A BIT bland in the first two third so that everyone else around them could stand out more) it’s one of the better uses of an ensemble cast that I’ve seen in a while.
So the actors do a great job with the material they’re given, but is the story being told here any good? Eh… I’d say it works well enough to keep the whole thing afloat, but it’s not what really makes this movie great. Poor Girl with a Rich Boyfriend and a mean family is not the most original idea out there, and the individual scenes don’t really seem to build to anything substantial until we get towards the end, but the journey itself as we get glimpses into East Asian culture from a perspective that isn’t coopting or fetishizing is in and of itself a joy to watch. Now there’s been some controversy surrounding this film for a variety of different reasons that I’m not all that qualified to speak on but are at least worth pointing out. While so much of the fun of this movie is in the vicarious thrill of living their opulent lifestyle, we are still only getting a rather narrow view of Asian culture, and not even the culture of the place where the movie takes place. The Young family are wealthy Chinese tycoons who planted a big mansion in another country (Singapore) where they alone completely upend the balance of income inequality from the native population, but the movie deftly avoids any sort of discussion about class, culture, or race in favor of making this look like a fantasy vacation where our audience avatar (Constance Wu) still gets to be humble because she’s not rich herself like everyone else. The movie is almost pure wish fulfilment which certainly has its place in popular media and as I said I am FAR from qualified to really weigh in on that issue (as well as some questions about the casting of Eurasian actors to play Chinese Singaporean characters), so I guess take it for what it is. Jon M Chu is already angling for a sequel which might hopefully address some of these concerns, and it’s not like the movie is ENTIRELY fluff or doesn’t wade into difficult subjects with Michelle Yeoh’s matriarch being a giant symbol for unacceptance of Western Asians by East Asian cultures (again, not qualified to talk on that). It’s more concerned with being fun and engaging us in their culture than anything else, and that kind of narrow focus is almost always gonna be problematic due to its simplicity, but I don’t think this movie should be dismissed because of it as the story it’s telling, while not universal, is still one that is almost never told in Hollywood if it’s EVER been told.
Now the problem that I had with this movie is that, while it is important that we have a film like this starring an all Asian cast, it’s really only unique in that aspect and ends up falling prey to common problems of both adaptation and the genre itself. You can see just how many corners were cut and how many scenes were shaved down just to try and fit everything in here which means that the film feels overstuffed but very shallow at points. There’s a scene rather early on in the movie where Nick tells Rachel about three of her relatives, and then only one of them plays any significant role in the movie. Hell, one of them is only on hand for about three minutes of shtick towards the end of the movie and I don’t think he ever interacts with Rachel or Nick, and the other is in this even less! I think he and his family showed up for a five second gag OUTSIDE the wedding for a scene where they interact with NONE of the family (not just Rachel and Nick), and then they’re never seen or heard from again. Even worse is when it comes to the bride and the groom who’s wedding Rachel and Nick are there for in the first place and are barely in the movie; especially the bride played by Sonoya Mizuno who get a REALLY great scene early on with Rachel and Nick and feels like they will be an important part of the story, but I don’t think she ever shows up again until the wedding itself and I don’t even recall her being at her own bachelorette party. I mean look, with a cast THIS big I might have just gotten lost and didn’t recognize them in other parts of the movie (she wore glasses in that early scene so maybe I didn’t recognize her at the party or when everyone was making dumplings), but it felt less like a film with a lot of people filling out the background and giving dimension to the family dynamics than it was the film being indecisive about who was important to follow or which characters we needed to devote the most attention to. On top of that, there are clichés in here that became old hat a long time ago and some of them frankly feel a bit offensive nowadays. There’s scheming ex-girlfriend here for about ten minutes to do one mean thing and never really comes up again (either to be a plot device or to receive any comeuppances), the movie points out the utter hurtfulness and selfish self-interest of calling someone a gold digger yet has a character who is the biggest and most offensive version of that cliché possible, and while I think the movie has a decent point to make about Nico Santos’s character being a gay man and therefore having to do THAT much more work just to keep in everyone’s good graces because of it (and it’s a good performance to boot), he still is the exact same GAY BEST FRIENDTM character you’d see in every other romantic comedy; down to a MAKE OVER MONTAGE for Rachel. It’s worth remembering that representation being as rare as it is in SO many genres means that simply creating the same kind of movie can still be transformative and worth noting in many respects (i.e. Black Panther being yet another Superhero Movie), and while I’ll give this movie a lot of credit for doing so much with these characters and making one of the more polished examples of the genre in recent years, it still can’t escape the fact that some of the tropes of this genre have become less prominent in recent years for a reason and that recreating them here isn’t really helping this movie’s cause as much as its immersion in the culture and its celebration of people who really don’t get a fair shake in Hollywood features.
For a big celebration of this particular slice of Asian culture, it does the job with admirable skill and with such a rich knowledge that I still think it’s an overwhelmingly positive experience even if it takes a few shortcuts in the script and doesn’t address some of the more pernicious issues with its premise. Sure, it’s probably a bit too straightforward for its own good, but until we get a dozen of these films a year and there’s something even CLOSE to equitable representation in film that isn’t based entirely on stereotypes fetishes, and insecurities, I think it’s a bit early to be calling this a tired premise; especially when it’s spin on the material is like nothing we’ve really ever seen before in this side of the world. I definitely recommend checking this out if you have the chance as the film does a great job of just immersing you in the world they set up and it’ll certainly be more engrossing to see it on the big screen than at home, and I’m sure you’ll find something to like in it even if you aren’t the biggest fan of the genre. Also, if this DOES get a sequel, let’s make it about Awkwafina because after Ocean’s 8 and now this, she’s gonna be a household name! Just you wait! She’s gonna get some big role a major blockbuster or a nostalgic remake… and then internet man babies will try to bully her off social media. Ugh… well hopefully by then Twitter and Jack gets their shit together and starts stomping those losers out. Hey, I can dream, can’t I!?