Crazy Rich Asians: Experience Has Made Me Rich, by David Bax
Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians knows exactly what it’s doing by employing so much jazzy, brassy Big Band music. In many ways, the movie feels like something new; a romantic comedy featuring an all Asian cast taking place amidst a milieu of gargantuan Chinese wealth that didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago. That swinging fanfare ties it all back to a mid-century, old Hollywood tradition. It’s old glamor meets new glamor. It’s also not Chu’s only ironic musical conceit. We’re also treated to multiple covers of English language pop hits with lyrics in Mandarin. And when a bunch of rich Asian bros take helicopters to a decadent bachelor party to the strains of “Flight of the Valkyries,” the twisted reference to Apocalypse Now is so subversive I wanted to cheer. Finally, though, the most potent thing about Crazy Rich Asians is that, when it comes to its soaring, swooning love story, it’s not being ironic at all.
Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an NYU economics professor who’s about to embark on a journey to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to attend his best friend’s wedding and, more importantly, meet his family for the first time. Once there, she’ll discover that not only are Nick’s folks fabulously wealthy but that they exist in a world wholly unlike the one where she’s been living. It’s also a world in which she’ll have trouble being welcomed, both because she comes from common folk and, even worse, because she’s an American.
At least, while she’s being shunned, shamed and insulted, she gets to visit Singapore in style. Crazy Rich Asians doubles as a tantalizing, luxurious travelogue of stunning locations. More than that even, the movie is a foodie’s delight. Before sending her through the gauntlet, Nick’s first order of duty is to take Rachel to Singapore’s famed street vendors, two of whom have Michelin stars (as Nick points out, they are the only street vendors in the world to have the honor). The resulting montage of rice, noodles, fried meats and tall glasses of lager is enough to convince anyone to book a ticket. Later, when Rachel learns how to make dumplings, we learn right alongside her, so detailed and loving is Chu’s presentation of the process.
Of course, most of the above occurs before Rachel learns the whole truth about Nick’s family and how much many of them hate her. Nick’s reasons for keeping all of this a secret constitute Crazy Rich Asians’ only disappointing reliance on one of the laziest tropes of the genre, which is that deception is the bedrock of every romantic comedy relationship.
Any movie is allowed one big ask of its audience and, luckily, that contrivance is Crazy Rich Asians’ only one. The rest of the time, the conflict comes from honest and organic places. Even as she keeps her head, the movie doesn’t try to pretend that Rachel isn’t intoxicated by the opulence around her. Nick and his family’s money isn’t a superficial trait. However Rachel processes and ultimately decides to react to all the new information and the challenges it brings, the benefits (and drawbacks) of affluence are a consideration.
It’s that honesty that makes Crazy Rich Asians so emotionally and intellectually effective. The movie’s main conflict is not between Rachel and Nick but between Rachel and Nick’s mother, Eleanor (the great Michelle Yeoh). A lesser romantic comedy—of which there are so many—would be satisfied with making Eleanor a villain. But to do so would be to defeat part of the purpose here, which is to illustrate that this society, despite its increased consumerist appetites, remains different from America. Eleanor is Rachel’s combatant but not because of the petty mother-in-law tropes of a million movies and television shows that have come before. Their battle comes down to ideology and philosophy of life. Nick’s respect for his mother is not something he’s just going to abandon because of how much he loves Rachel. In any case, Crazy Rich Asians has no interest in making him choose between the two. That’s the kind of conceit you’d find in too many American romantic comedies and, despite all the clever cover songs on the soundtrack, this is much more than a one to one swap with a few of the lyrics changed. Crazy Rich Asians is its own kind of rom-com and it’s one of the best to come along in ages.