Crazy Rich Asians is a movie, due to its uniqueness and representation, burdened with unfair expectations. It has an all-Asian cast, Asian director, it’s based off a best-selling book by an Asian author, so it must be one of the best things that has ever happened to Asians (and be 100% accurate to all experiences) or else… it’s a failure? I suppose based on that metric that white people never have to meet (we’ll be fine whether the new Mark Wahlberg movie is good or bad), Crazy Rich Asians is in a pretty scary position. And yet if you take the movie for what it is—a lovely story about romance, wealth, power, and culture clashes—you’re going to get a rich, vibrant experience you won’t soon forget.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU who has been dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) for about a year. What she doesn’t know is that Nick and his family are fabulously wealthy and he’s basically Chinese royalty. When Rachel decides to go with Nick to attend his friend’s wedding in Singapore and meet Nick’s family, she discovers that she’s walked into an environment where love and wealth are constantly at odds. Supported by her old college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and Nick’s sister Astrid (Gemma Chan), Rachel resolves to stick by Nick, but must face off against his commanding mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).
One of the best aspects of Crazy Rich Asians is how it shows the gulf between Chinese-Americans and Chinese natives. For Eleanor, this is an unbridgeable gap because Americans are only concerned with their own happiness rather than sacrifice and hard work. That gulf if one Rachel needs to cross, but she can’t deny her own heritage as the daughter of an immigrant and an American success story, nor should she have to. The film wisely never paints Rachel as needy or Eleanor as a villain, and instead you can see where both are coming from even if Eleanor is committing a cardinal movie sin by standing in the way of true love.
Jon M. Chu’s movie shines brightest when it focuses on its characters and their relationships. Golding is downright dreamy as Nick, and the movie almost gets away with shortchanging the start of Nick and Rachel’s relationship even though it probably would have benefitted by adding more specificity and definition to their romance. Thankfully, Wu and Golding have such excellent chemistry that we’re rooting for their love story from start to finish. The film also receives a burst of energy whenever Awkwafina is on screen as she basically walks away with the movie thanks to her excellent comic relief work. I also loved the subplot involving Astrid and her husband, since it shows not only a tender, powerful performance from Chan, but also demonstrates the stakes of trying to bridge a class disparity in a marriage and the insecurities that brings to the surface.
However, that wealth frequently takes center stage in Crazy Rich Asians. On the one hand, that makes sense. Wealth is cinematic and easy to demonstrate. It’s fun to see the outrageous bachelor and bachelorette parties Nick’s friends and family can afford. And yet it detracts somewhat from the culture and characters. The movie does do wealth porn far better than something like Fifty Shades of Grey because you can tell that the characters are willing to walk away from the money rather than being lavished with stuff, but at the same time, wealth is worldwide. You could make a similar movie with an all-white cast, but Crazy Rich Asians is special because it’s about Asian characters and their world.
No movie can be all things to all people, nor should they be. There will be people who take issue with how things are presented in Crazy Rich Asians, and some of those complaints will be valid. And yet there’s no denying that this is a fun, electric movie that never denies culture or heritage. Sometimes the wealth aspect distracts us from those elements, but we always return to the heart of the story, which is both about Chinese-Americans and Chinese nationals, and the similarities and the differences between the two. It makes for a unique experience, one I’m eager to relive. Yes, there are the standard romcom beats. Yes, there are lavish displays of wealth. But as Crazy Rich Asians does time and again, it sings you a familiar song in its own voice and it sounds lovely.