Crazy Rich Asians is exactly what it says on the box: a deeply romantic comedy about the crazy, rich, and Asian, and all the eye-popping displays of wealth and sugar-sweet declarations of love that that should entail.
But what makes Crazy Rich Asians special – what makes it more than an extremely convincing advertisement for luxury tourism in Singapore – is the smart and deeply felt culture-clash story at its core.
Though it’s been touted as the first studio movie with an Asian-American cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, only one of its leads is actually playing an Asian-American character: Constance Wu’s Rachel, a basically ordinary gal who discovers that her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) comes from money – like, heir-to-one-of-the-biggest-fortunes-in-Asia money.
He reveals this to her on a first-class flight to Singapore, where they’re to attend his best friend’s wedding. Which gives her no time at all to prepare for what’s ahead: a gilded world of private islands, designer dresses, and million-dollar jewels, shot through with all the complicated history and cutthroat drama that tends to come along with private islands, designer dresses, and million-dollar jewels.
Within that world, Rachel, a college professor with working-class roots, is not only a fish out of water, but an object of scorn and scrutiny, a target to be taken down. And no one seems less thrilled to meet Rachel than Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Nick’s mom. However, Eleanor’s issue with Rachel isn’t one of class, or not entirely. In large part, she distrusts Rachel’s Americanness: her proud individuality, her professional ambition, her pursuit of happiness.
It’s to Crazy Rich Asians‘ credit that it doesn’t dismiss Eleanor’s perspective out of hand; in fact, it’s echoed, albeit much more affectionately, by Rachel’s mother (Tan Kheng Hua), who warns her that though she may look Chinese, she doesn’t necessarily think Chinese. (Rachel’s friend Peik Lin, played by Awkwafina, puts it more bluntly: “She thinks you’re a banana – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”)
But that’s just something Rachel’s going to have to overcome, because Crazy Rich Asians is still a romcom, and its starring couple are too good together to be kept apart forever. Wu is instantly and utterly winning as Rachel – and in a welcome break from romcom convention, Rachel is relatable because of her laid-back warmth, not her inability to get her life together.
She has excellent chemistry with Golding, who, with his perfectly chiseled accent and even more perfectly chiseled abs, is so convincing as a romantic hero that it’s almost surprising to realize this is the first time he’s ever played one. His Nick doesn’t actually have much of a personality, but that might be the most perfect thing about him. Golding imbues Nick with just enough charm to prop him up, and lets our projected desires fill in the rest.
Their relationship – sweet, sexy, appealingly cozy – keeps Crazy Rich Asians on its axis, even as the world around them threatens to spin out of control. The many supporting characters range from solidly sympathetic (Gemma Chan as Nick’s elegant cousin Astrid) to cartoonishly douchey (Jimmy O. Yang as Nick’s friend Bernard), and each new display of extravagance seems more extreme than the last.
If that’s not the ultimate Asian-American fantasy, what is?
The centerpiece of this luxury-porn buffet is a wedding so ostentatiously over-the-top that Baz Luhrmann would probably describe it as “a bit much” – and yet instead of laughing out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, I found myself tearing up over an intense look shared between Nick and Rachel. (Okay, I did snort a bit when the fake butterflies came out.)
Over and over, Crazy Rich Asians invites us to indulge in the lifestyles of the rich and semi-famous while reminding us that fancy cars and five-star suites aren’t what really matters in life. It’s a nice sentiment, as long as you don’t think too hard about it, and director Jon M. Chu does a deft job of making all that wealth look both super enticing and totally exhausting.
What is important to these characters is the same stuff that matters to everyone else. Eleanor prioritizes her family, Nick wants the love of his life, and Rachel is just looking for happiness. The central tension of Crazy Rich Asians is whether Rachel can find a way to reconcile the Youngs’ old-world values with her new-world ones, so that all three of them can be satisfied. If that’s not the ultimate second-generation Asian-American fantasy, I don’t know what is.