They’re crazy-rich, all right. Think palatial estates and personal chefs and stunning couture gowns and an extravagant bachelor party on a private yacht and a bedroom suite on a jet. So is Crazy Rich Asians, the much-anticipated adaptation of the Kevin Kwan novel, worth its weight in gold? That’s a yes on the opulent surface. The joyful confection is coated in a sparkly gloss, bright enough to gleam from the darkest, most cynical corner. Every decadent film frame deserves to be Instagrammed for posterity. But there’s one 10-karat problem: The thinly drawn couple at the heart of this rom-com is economy class.
In New York City (duh), girl next door Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) falls for dashing Nick Young (Henry Golding). Rachel was raised by a single mother. Nick speaks with a posh London accent. They’ve been dating a year when he asks her to accompany him home to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Upon arrival, she learns Nick’s big secret: He’s the scion of a billionaire real-estate developer. His family is considered royalty. And this almost literal prince charming is more sought-after than all the TV Bachelors put together. Say what? He hoards her Jamba Juice card and her Netflix password! Rachel is undettered. She loves Nick no matter how much money is in his bank account.
This formula is all very modern-day Cinderella. What makes it feel fresh is that that these are all Asian and Asian-American characters. In fact, Crazy Rich Asians is the first mainstream studio movie featuring an exclusively Asian and Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993. Cultural richness on a big screen matters. And if you shrug your shoulders at this notion, a not-so-friendly reminder you that all of eight months ago, a Matt Damon-starring satire called Downsizing featured one of the most galling stereotypical portraits of an Asian woman I’ve ever seen.
Rachel is nothing like that awful Hong Chau character. She’s a bright, pragmatic economics professor. She’s a bit introverted, yet cool enough to choose a best friend in the form of outgoing, motor-mouthed Go Peik Lin (rapper Awkwafina, who’s legit hilarious as the sidekick and more effective here than in Ocean’s 8). Surely Rachel is a dream come true for any potential mother in law. Nope. Rachel is not only a wish out of water in Singapore, she must deal with a blood-smelling Mama shark named Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Assuming Rachel doesn’t share her strong Asian-grounded family values, she takes an instant disliking to her. Just as it seems like Eleanor might be warming up, she privately approaches this perfect woman, cups her face and snipes, “You will never be good enough.”
That’s the least of the bullying that Rachel endures on this trip from hell. During the out-of-town bachelorette party, the mean girls welcome her by placing a bloody, gutted fish on her bed and scrawling on the wall, “Ditch him, you gold-digging bitch.” Ha? But Rachel plows forward with wedding week, cheerfully hand-rolling dumplings with Nick’s family and complimenting Eleanor’s jewelry.
I’ve never read Kwan’s groundbreaking, popular Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, so I assume that Rachel’s rationale for playing a passive role in this relationship is carefully examined in print. In fact, friends rave that the novels feature 500-plus pages worth of sharply detailed characters with intertwining plotlines. He also skewers the Young family’s wealth. Few of these attributes made it to the big screen, even in a two-hour running time. The extended family members could have been edited out of the film altogether. Fans of beloved, down-to-Earth cousin Astrid should be outraged by her half-told story. And Nick’s dad is conspiciously MIA.
Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) gives a memorable performance as a self-made woman utterly flummoxed by her new surroundings. Like the Young family, I underestimated her abilities. She doesn’t dish it back to Eleanor, and I didn’t blame for a bit. Yeoh is fierce, still sporting those sculpted biceps from 2000’s masterpiece Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger. Instead, Rachel takes her down via a sublime Mah Jong game. But Golding’s square-jawed hero is as two-dimensional as an old-school animated fairy tale leading man. He’s handsome but bloodless.
I know we’re starved for feel-great rom-coms at a Cineplex stuffed with sequels and bloated CGI monsters. Fully understandable. But strip away our collective lust for big red heart Emojis, and dare I say there’s no reason why this pair would be or should be together. Rachel has more spark with her no-B.S. bestie than she does with this man who wants to marry her. Nick gives her jewelry, but Go Peik Lin gives her the unvarnished truth. In turn, she only bares her soul to one of them.
A vibrant, accessible and proudly diverse comedy deserves to be celebrated. A guy that can’t stand up to his mother . . . ? Maybe not so much.
Crazy Rich Asians opens in theaters on Wednesday, August 15
Also published on Medium.