While trying to decide what movie to watch this last weekend, the obvious choice soon became Crazy Rich Asians (2018): a movie that was rapidly becoming the same kind of cultural event that Black Panther (2018) was earlier this year. It featured an entirely Asian cast – something that hadn’t been seen in Hollywood since 1993’s now-forgotten Little Women – was receiving absolutely stellar reviews and was seemingly all that anybody could talk about (recent Oscar snafus aside).
Then I went to my wife and told her that I wanted to see this movie over the weekend. She told me, “Really? You want to see a romantic comedy?” I said I did and we settled on a day and time to see it.
Later, my wife was telling a coworker what movie we were going to see over the weekend. Her response was “Really? Brian wants to watch a romantic comedy?”
While talking to a friend of my own, I happened to mention what movie we were going to see over the weekend. And, like clockwork, he said “Really, Brian? You want to see a romantic comedy?”
Yes. I, Brian, wanted to see a romantic comedy: a movie with a stellar cast that was receiving rave reviews. It’s not like I hate romantic comedies on principle – I certainly love The Wedding Singer (1998) and You’ve Got Mail (1998) as much as the next guy – and this one looked to be an uncharacteristically excellent version of exactly that. So why would I want to avoid it?
Now having come and gone from my screening, and having had time to mull over the movie I saw, I can safely say that the globe-trotting production deserved every inch of praised it has received. With nothing more than its capable crew and a few satisfying twists on the tired old Romcom formula, it has delivered not just a good movie, but a great one: one that I can safely call one of this year’s absolute best.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What is the movie – other than, as the title suggests, Asians who are crazy-rich – about?
Well, it’s about Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American professor of economics at NYU. Unbeknownst to her, however, she’s actually dating Singapore’s most eligible bachelor from that nation’s most extravagantly wealthy family (a fact that she gradually comes to realize when her beau, Nick, invites her back to Singapore for the dual purpose of attending his best friend’s wedding and meeting his family).
And, honestly, that’s really all there is to it. It’s a fish-out-of-water Romcom where an American girl is dumped in an unfamiliar setting where she needs to navigate would-be romantic rivals and under-handed family politics in order to win the approval of her boyfriend’s stern and unapproving mother amidst the backdrop of an extravagant, over-the-top wedding. Seen from a distance, it’s your bog-standard Hollywood Romcom: complete with a climactic proposal on a boarding airplane, an unbending mother-in-law-to-be learning to accept her son’s choice of partner and the money-shot wedding that everything seems to be building towards from the word go. And in that respect, it’s really no different from any number of other movies that Hollywood lets loose on the box office year after year after year.
Yet, that really isn’t all that there is to it. It almost would have been enough for it to just be a solidly well-made Romcom featuring a grossly under-represented demographic, but this movie adds just enough new wrinkles, considerations and twists to the overly-familiar formula to feel like a genuine revelation at the tail end of this summer season.
You see, Rachel isn’t just Chinese: she’s Chinese-American. And while she always saw herself as Chinese amidst a sea of European descendants, Nick’s family (really, the entire foreign-based cast) sees her exclusively as an American. It’s not just that Nick’s mother is up-tight (although she still is) or that Nick’s would-be lovers are unconscionably jealous of her (although they still are): its that she is an outsider among a culture and people that she had always assumed herself to be a part of. They see her as American, a fiercely individualistic trail-blazing who would rather have her career in New York City than to settle down and raise her own branch of the Young family at “home” in Singapore. She doesn’t know their customs (not really) and she is certainly not from their social strata. It’s an insatiably clever twist on the whole proceedings that adds layers of narrative depth and avenues of character interaction that simply aren’t afforded elsewhere in this genre.
Themes of class, ethnicity and nationality abound throughout the film and are explored across many different sets of characters (not simply our loveable romantic leads). We are invited to observe Astrid and her decidedly lower-class husband Michael, whose marital strife is borne from the simple seed of Michael’s feelings of social inadequacy amidst a family of such exorbitant wealth. We are allowed to contrast the ultra-wealthy Young family with the merely super-wealthy Goh family (whose daughter was Rachel’s best friend in college) to Rachel’s own impossibly humble home life. And when Mr. Goh convinces his daughters to eat by telling them about all of the starving kids in America, it makes us (or at least me) take pause about America’s malingering poverty crises.
Although Crazy Rich Asians certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it never had to in the first place. It elevates its humble subjects with its bitingly smart script, powerhouse script and show-stopping wedding set pieces. And while it does suffer from wildly inconsistent shifts in tone (alternating, at one point, between a scene that would feel at home in virtually any movie in its genre and a gruesome set-piece straight out of The Godfather), they aren’t nearly enough to bog down this infectiously fun film.