In 2018 in America, any feature film with a mostly non-white cast is big news. So it’s impossible to separate a movie like Crazy Rich Asians, the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name, from its broader social context. Of course it’s significant and another step in the right direction for Hollywood, but Crazy Rich Asians also has surprising depth, especially for a rom-com.
The movie focuses on NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), daughter of a single immigrant mother. Rachel is madly in love with a guy named Nick Young (Henry Golding), so when he asks her to attend his best friend’s wedding in Singapore and meet his family, she gets excited to head East. Apparently in the year that they’ve dated, Rachel has never once Googled her beau (or asked him nearly enough about his family), because if she had, she’d know that Nick comes from Singaporean real estate royalty.
After flying overseas in an extravagant first-class suite, Rachel finds herself face-to-face with an opulence that makes Jay Gatsby look like Fred Flintstone. She’s also introduced to Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), a lady who doesn’t take any shit and who makes it very clear to Rachel that the young Chinese-American will never be enough for her son or for their traditional family.
So Crazy Rich Asians is basically a Disney princess movie, only this time Prince Charming feels like more of a side quest, and our heroine uses game theory to battle the evil “stepmother.” But beyond the surface, this is less a Cinderella story and more of an exploration of modern womanhood, the complexities of Asian-ness, and what it means to be a hyphenate both in the U.S. and abroad. The first act drags because it feels like a typical rom-com setup, but as Rachel confronts the various issues plaguing her—Eleanor being chief among them—the movie finds a groove.
Crazy Rich Asians isn’t without its blemishes. The movie never commits fully to rom or com, so it can feel bland in the stretch before the drama with Eleanor heats up. There’s also a B plot featuring Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) that feels half-baked, which is a shame because she’s one of the movie’s more interesting characters.
And then there are a couple of social issues—the 1 percent and LGBT politics—that are hardly touched. I know, I know; it’s supposed to be a rom-com. But economics-teaching Rachel is essentially dating the Asian Donald Trump Jr. and hangs out with the “rainbow sheep” of the family, Oliver (Nico Santos), in a country where you can still be imprisoned for homosexuality. The movie does a good enough job with its other subjects that you’d expect to find some poignancy here.
All things considered, Crazy Rich Asians’ value in other areas makes up for what it misses. Look beyond the trappings of your basic rom-com; there are enough subversions and novelty to make this both a success within the genre and a step forward for American moviemaking.
Crazy Rich Asians
Director: Jon M. Chu
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh
Theater: Now playing, area theaters