The romantic comedy is being transformed, for the better, by the very people who were for so long ignored in the mostly white genre. The trend started with last year’s revelatory crowd-pleaser The Big Sick, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon about their relationship, starring Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, and for some reason snubbed at the Oscars because the Academy are fucking monsters. And now there’s Crazy Rich Asians, simply a goddamn joy to watch, a deliciously funny, lusciously globe-hopping film that simultaneously explores the responsibilities of family hierarchy and piety as well as individual desire and ambition. It is nuanced, it is complex, it is ridiculous, it is stupendous. You’ll fall in love with nearly every damn person in this movie.
You may know this already, but: Crazy Rich Asians is an adaptation of the bestselling book by Kevin Kwan (the first of a series, followed by China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems) and the first studio movie in more than two decades with a majority Asian-American cast (the last one was 1993’s The Joy Luck Club), and the filmmakers turned down a boatload of money from Netflix to get the movie into theaters, eventually partnering with Warner Bros. Director Jon M. Chu (who previously helmed some Step Up films and the sequels of G.I. Joe and Now You See Me), Kwan, and the film’s producers wanted the movie to be seen as an event experience, to increase visibility while attacking cultural stereotypes about Asian attractiveness, subservience, and masculinity, and they sure as hell nailed it.
Crazy Rich Asians is specific in its cultural representations and exploration of the old-country-vs.-expat dynamic but universal in its themes about romance and love, and I was not the only person sniffling away tears at an early screening I attended last week. The woman of Southeast Asian descent next to me was translating major plot points of the movie to her mother next to her; most of our aisle was taken up by an Asian family spanning three generations; and the whole theater was packed with people who had paid to see the movie a week in advance and who were into it, cheering and booing and laughing, most often at Awkwafina (because every person will leave this movie thinking to themselves, “Why don’t I know more about Awkwafina?”).
The film focuses on Chinese-American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, who is so fucking good), the youngest professor of economics ever at New York University, who has been dating her Chinese-Singaporean boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding, who is also so fucking good) for about a year when he invites her to Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. Excited about the prospect of “an adventure East” but nervous about meeting his family, Rachel is thrown for a serious loop when she learns that Nick is actually astonishingly wealthy, the heir to an old-money family who expects Nick to return from the United States and take up his father’s mantle as head of their massive international company.
And of course, that’s not all: Rachel is not only unaware of Nick’s family’s wealth and status, but she’s surprised by their reception to her, too. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Rachel is an example of the American Dream: her mother single-handedly built a career in real estate, Rachel is flourishing in her field, and the two of them have always prioritized their own individual ambitions. This is in total contrast to Nick’s mother, the formidable Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, fucking killing it), who expects her son to continue on the family traditions and the family business, and who uses her wealth as both a weapon and a shield. Each woman represents a certain cultural point of view — Chinese vs. Chinese-American — and yet they each mean a significant amount to Nick, who loves his mother for everything she’s done as their strong matriarch and who loves Rachel for how she makes him feel like someone new, someone without the weight of centuries of history and propriety on his back.
And so Crazy Rich Asians explores a variety of personal and familial considerations (the elements of successful relationships vs. successful marriages, the matriarchal responsibilities in Asian cultures) while also poking into the world of the absurdly rich, with their petty rivalries, their insular thinking, and their constant need to one-up each other. It helps that everyone here is doing the most, and that the cast is pitch-perfect; you’ll want to stand up for Rachel, fall in love with Nick, hang out with Peik Lin (Awkwafina), Rachel’s friend from college who helps her navigate the world of the ultra-elite, and share secrets with Nick’s big-hearted cousin Astrid (the gorgeous, poised Gemma Chan, who recently made excellently shady waves for saying that Scarlett Johansson would play her in a movie).
But Crazy Rich Asians is not triumphant only because of who is onscreen, but also because it’s a seriously enjoyable film. So much is happening here: Although the movie jumps around gorgeous locations in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, it doesn’t fully buy into insane opulence; Rachel remains removed from that world for most of the film, and her shock and skepticism of it translates to us as viewers. But the movie also challenges anyone who thinks that people who look like Wu or Ken Jeong or Awkwafina or Golding would be undeserving of that wealth, with an opening scene that makes you smirk at the ignorance of white men. Parent-child relationships are shown as integral to the safety and happiness of both generations, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be analyzed for inequality. And the film puts its own spin on that age-old romantic-comedy question of whether you lose yourself in marriage or gain a partner — or can it be both?
Crazy Rich Asians is a step forward for the rom-com, a film that is specific in its Asian and Asian-American perspectives but inclusive in its good vibes, a movie that nails its casting and its script from Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim and its production design and its costumes. In every way possible, Crazy Rich Asians is a success and a delight.
Image sources (in order of posting): Warner Bros. Pictures Publicity, Warner Bros. Pictures Publicity, Warner Bros. Pictures Publicity, Warner Bros. Pictures Publicity