The rom-com as a genre has suffered much in the last decade or so due to a surfeit of agonizingly insipid cinematic attempts. So when one comes along that reminds us what a good one is like, it is a cause for celebration. And so it is with CRAZY RICH ASIANS, based on Kevin Kwan’s Cinderella-inspired novel of the same name, a film that adheres strictly to the formulas demanded while also being as thorough an indulgent delight as the over-the-top as the antics of the super-rich that it portrays.
Our lovers are Rachel (Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor and Nick (Henry Golding), an English-accented, rakishly handsome young man given to borrowing her streaming video password and playing basketball at the local YMCA. They’ve been dating for a year, but It’s only when Nick invites Rachel to the Singapore wedding of his best friend, Colin (Chris Pang) that she discovers that he is the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Asia. Or the world for that matter. Will their love survive his snobby friends? Will it weather the disapproval of Nick’s beloved, iron-willed mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh)? Will Rachel be able to make dumplings that will pass muster with Nick’s even more beloved grandmother (Lisa Lu)? Will Rachel’s old college buddy, Singapore-based Peik Lin (Awkwafina), start a stylist business with Nick’s equally queer cousin, Oliver (Nico Santos), the family fixer of awkward situations and finder of esoteric paraphernalia? Will Peik’s brother, P.T. (Calvin Wong) be able to stop stuffing noodles in his mouth long enough to profess his own love for Rachel?
Most of those questions will, of course, be answered in due course. And, further of course, there is very little doubt about where all this will end, but the trip getting there is worth the time it takes to gawk at million-dollar earrings and synchronized swimmers hired for a putative engagement party.
Truth be told, the leads are the least interesting people involved. It’s not that they aren’t attractive, nor that they lack
chemistry, but they are surrounded by a veritable cornucopia of quirky characters that steal the film right out from under them starting with Peik’s family (led by Ken Jeong) who embody the crassness of the nouveau riche while also managing to be perfectly adorable about it. Awkwafina, with her gobsmacked astonishment about everything to do with Nick’s family Is the perfect audience surrogate, gaping at the wonder of it all with a perfect lack of irony, gaping even more at the wonder of Rachel’s complete lack of interest in Nick’s money. If the soapy subplot about the marital troubles between Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her self-styled commoner husband, Michael (Pierre Png), drags a bit, there are the obnoxious cousins to balance it out. Ronnie Chieng as the status-obsessed Eddie worried more about his camera angles than his family raises obliviousness to new heights, as does Remy Hii’s cousin Alistair, a would-be movie mogul with a talentless girlfriend who wants to be a star. As for Awkwafina and Santos, they nail camp as more than a mere pose. It is high-art as demanding as any other discipline in those rarified heights, and just as perceptive when commenting on the human condition. All that while also being scathingly funny. There are two sequels to Kwan’s novel, but I want a spin-off starring them.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS doesn’t skimp on real emotions amid all the comedy. When Nick and Rachel lock eyes at Colin’s wedding, the fact that is the social event of the season replete with special effects and competing designer gowns, the romance between those two is palpable enough to warm the heart of even the most cynical viewer.
And this is why it works.
This is also why the steely, oh so polite disapproval of Eleanor hurts so much. Yeoh never resorts to the caricature of an adoring mom who resents another woman in her son’s life. This is a formidable character that is more subtle than that, and, hence, a more worthy adversary, not to mention one that is far more dangerous. Wu more than makes Racher her match, working the cultural divide between Chinese and Chinese-American with finesse while also discovering the game that her potential mother-in-law is playing, and more importantly, why.
There is nothing wrong with wallowing in the excesses of the super-rich while being seduced by all that is right with CRAZY RICH ASIANS. The pure escapism it offers of people who think nothing of renting whole islands for bachelorette parties is part of the fun. Still, finding that at least some of these same people adore Singaporean street food as much as that to be found in posh restaurants, and that their other values fall into line with that may also be escapism of another kind, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying. Even if it is all part of the same fairy tale