Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is one of 2018’s most purely enjoyable films.

Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com.

Normally I use such an opener to lead into a “but here’s what it REALLY is” reveal, usually with the term “ostensible” dropped in there somewhere, but even though there is more to Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the first instalment of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling series of novels than just a rom-com (needlessly snobby and dismissive as that statement sounds), I want to clearly state that Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com.  It is a proper unashamed trope-laden rom-com.  We’ve got our extremely likeable and occasionally klutzy protagonist, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu).  We’ve got a super-hunky and charming but comparatively bland love interest, Nick Young (Henry Golding).  There’s a scene-stealing best friend who fires off quotable lines and charisma like a Gatling gun (here played by Awkwafina just in case you thought her similar turn in Ocean’s 8 was some kind of fluke).  We’ve got makeover sequences, third-act breakups, a race-against-time anguished-declaration-of-love finale set to the cheesiest of pop songs and taking place at an airport…

None of this is being used to dock points, please don’t misunderstand me.  Crazy Rich Asians plays the notes of the genre without deviation and it does so sans any trace of irony, parody, commentary, eye-rolling, or any other such act of attention-calling self-consciousness.  That very fact makes Crazy Rich Asians a wonderful breath of fresh air in 2018’s moviegoing landscape because, let’s be honest, when was the last time a straightforward no nonsense rom-com played in cinemas nationwide?  I genuinely couldn’t tell you since what few do come along nowadays typically use the rom-com formula more for side-dressing to beef up the B-plots whilst the main film charts different courses – The Big Sick, Love, Simon, the absolutely woeful I Feel Pretty and Patrick to name just a few examples.  Even when Crazy Rich Asians dives down into questions of identity, it still filters them through the prism and structure of a rom-com formula.  That makes it a novelty in this landscape, but it also provides ample evidence that the formula and these tropes still have a magnificent power to them when played straight as they are here.  You’re damn right I was in floods of happy tears during that airport finale even whilst I chuckled in recognition of such an overplayed staging device!

So, Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com, but that’s not the whole story to an extent that solely labelling it as a rom-com is arguably mis-selling the film.  Crazy Rich Asians is also a culture-clash comedy, albeit not completely in the way that one might expect given the premise.  Singapore expat Nick Young is dating New York professor Rachel Chu and decides, since they’ve been dating for over a year, to take her back home for his best friend’s wedding, where she discovers that the Youngs are the richest and most powerful family in all of Asia which makes Nick the region’s most eligible bachelor, information he had chosen to not mention before for various reasons.  Whilst Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim’s screenplay does touch on the economic culture clashes between Rachel and the fanciest, borderline tacky, of high societies that she’s been thrust into, it is far more interested and focussed on the divides caused by her ancestry.  The American side of her Asian-American heritage.

Rachel, by her own admission and by all appearances, could not be more perfect in terms of image for the Young family – primarily headed up by Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and grandmother Shang (Lisa Lu) – she is a Chinese professor of economics, specifically game theory, with lactose-intolerance, after all.  But, as pointed out by her own mother (Tan Kheng Hua), inside, where it counts to those who run the Young business empire, she’s American.  She’s American raised, the result of her mother immigrating to the country under spoiler-related circumstances, American educated, instilled with American values and American attitudes, so if she feels out of place in New York despite her best efforts, she’s doubly so when returning to her homeland.  As Peik Lin puts it, “you’re like a banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”  The extravagant displays of wealth that surround Rachel at almost all times after stepping off of the plane to Singapore are merely one more thing to add onto the identity crisis she spends the movie having to work through.

This is what ultimately forms the conflict of the film; even Nick, sweet lovable devoted hunk that he is, ends up contributing inadvertently every now and again from accidentally insensitive comments.  Rachel has to reconcile the two sides of her heritage and identity, ones she’s never seriously had to consider before, in order to find peace within herself and her status as an outsider in both lands she should otherwise be able to claim as her home, and the film works through this in thoughtful and nuanced ways that lead to some wonderful payoffs.  In doing so, it radiates a pride and celebration for Asian culture, customs, and traditions.  If Jon M. Chu largely eschews the capitalist satire of Kwan’s novel – which should not really come as a surprise to anyone who has watched a Jon M. Chu film before, the man adores himself some hyper-realist ostentatious spectacle and it’s one of the reasons I love him so – he at least delights in being able to visualise the specifically-Asian designs of wealth and traditions in clearly loving ways.

But Jon M. Chu and the film’s writers also recognise that celebrating and taking pride in one’s culture does not absolve it from critique, working in repudiations of cultural elitism and ingrained-but-still-wrong attitudes towards traditional gender roles almost seamlessly into the fabric of the rom-com formula – especially in a B-plot revolving around the crumbling marriage of Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) which builds to a climax that will likely become an all-timer in the rom-com pantheon.  This is primarily achieved thanks to the film’s swath of richly drawn, engaging, and just-plain lovable characters, many of whom feel like a concerted pushback against decades of passively-accepted Hollywood stereotypes for Asian characters; what the film ends up doing with Eleanor manages to invert one particularly prevalent stereotype into something that’s genuinely poignant.  There are a lot of characters, so many staples of Kwan’s book get short-changed to some degree, but they almost all make a distinct impression in one way or another regardless of screen time, the kind of impact where I already want to see more of them because they’re so fun to be around.

On that note, I want it on record that Constance Wu should be starring in all movies forever until the heat death of the universe from now on, thank you please.  I had not seen her in anything before this, because Fresh Off the Boat does not air on UK TV – although my most recent Google showed that it’s started running on 5*… my point still stands – but it took exactly 5 minutes of this movie for me to conclude that she was born to headline movies.  This woman is like a walking Fountain of Youth but for charisma!  She has a seemingly endless supply of charm and likeability, displaying impeccable comic timing and everywoman sense that easily draws one into the world of the film, helping guide those of us not as educated or experienced in the themes of the movie to understand the significance of things like mah-jong hands in the moment, and she nails the hell out of the more dramatic beats in the last third of the story.  Wu is backed up by the believably perfect Golding, the hysterical Awkwafina, and the commanding yet complex Yeoh, among so many others, but she is operating in a league of her own.  I rarely get to see instant lightning-in-a-bottle star-making turns and this is one of those; if she isn’t toplining at least one movie a year for the rest of her career, I am going to blow a gasket.

In the days after my screening of Crazy Rich Asians, I found myself wondering if I were perhaps overpraising the film in my mind due to it being not only a romantic-comedy, a genre that’s largely been consigned to the wastelands of Netflix’s dubious approach to quality control, but a quality romantic-comedy, a species that can oftentimes feel like it’s on the brink of extinction.  Because, fact is, I love rom-coms and I especially love good rom-coms, regardless of whether they reinvent the wheel or not, so it does feel so good to be served a straightforward no-bullshit version of one after so goddamn long.  But whilst I love Crazy Rich Asians for satisfying my most-underserved of needs – including the discovery that Coldplay songs are improved by at least 75% when you translate Chris Martin’s lyrics into a language other than English – that’s not all that comes to mind when I think back on the film.

There’s the fact that it’s a rom-com with all the trappings and trimmings, yes, but there’s also the palpable pride the film has for Asian culture, the celebratory feel in having this assemblage of Asian talent in front of and behind the camera, the gleeful fun in Jon M. Chu’s direction, the heartfelt look at dissociative identity towards one’s heritage, the coming out party for immediate Movie Star Constance Wu, the wit in the script’s various one-liners, the loving dynamic between Rachel and Nick…  the fact that just thinking about Crazy Rich Asians after viewing makes me feel joyful in a way that Film in 2018 has largely failed to give me so far.  Not everything about Crazy Rich Asians works, which can lead to it getting bogged down in its two-hour runtime every now and again, but the everything works, if that makes sense.  It’s the most purely joyful film I’ve seen all year to a degree that is truly infectious, and also shockingly one of its deepest.  Do not miss this.

Callum Petch is 200 degrees.

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