Haven’t done a straight up review in a long while, and since Crazy Rich Asians is #CulturallySignificant, it’s the perfect film for me to return with. Are these crazy rich Asians crazy good? The short answer is yes, the long answer is mostly yes. This film really succeeded as a story about an American confronting the disapproving mother of her boyfriend and navigating her way through what is basically the Singaporean aristocracy, but I’m not sure if it was a great romance. It was a fantastic film sure, but not for the reasons I feel like the advertisers were selling us.
The film’s strengths and weaknesses can be found in its central couple, Rachel Chu and Nick Young. In a departure from the books which were more of an ensemble, Rachel is basically the heart and soul of the film and the story’s main protagonist. She’s smart, funny, and played terrifically by Constance Wu in a deeply American story arc where she confronts the xenophobic elitism at the heart of Singapore’s high society. I say deeply American, because it’s the story of the daughter of an immigrant asserting herself and her identity in a world that sees her as low-born and sullied. What defines American-ess to the rest of the world is someone who is far removed from their “real” culture and homogenized into this melting pot that is America, which comes with the assumption that one is self-serving and materialistic. Rachel meets her insanely rich boyfriend’s mother hoping to win her over, but doesn’t realize that in the eye’s of Nick’s mother, she has already lost. What follows is this sort of cold war between them that culminates in such a brilliant final confrontation that I can confidently say that it is on its own worth the price of admission. That’s Rachel’s story, Nick’s on the other hand kinda sucks.
Nick is the other half of this couple and he really doesn’t have much to do here, and there really isn’t much to him. He’s more interesting for what he represents than for what he is. He’s the golden son of a massive dynasty and the heir to his family’s enormous real estate empire (they basically own Singapore). The other candidates for that position are textbook failsons, empty and pathetic men corrupted by their wealth and privilege. The central tension for Nick is if he should stay in Singapore and assume his throne, or live with Rachel in New York and leave the empire in the hands of his incompetent relatives. The problem is that there really isn’t any tension, Nick’s defining character trait is that he loves Rachel, there is no universe where he doesn’t pick Rachel over his family’s empire and the audience is constantly reminded of this throughout. The tension lies with Rachel, an economics professor and someone who uses her analytical mind to see outcomes and possibilities of every action she takes. Nick has a tunnel vision that leads straight to her, whereas Rachel is the one that ends up doing the thinking for him and accounting for the future. This leads to some of the film’s strongest scenes, but it came at the cost of Nick, who is so much of a cypher and an afterthought in a story that is ostensibly about him, that when he does make a grand romantic gesture to Rachel towards the end of the film it barely registered because Rachel’s big emotional moment with his mother that came prior left so much more of an impact. If Nick’s past were more fleshed out and he had ambitions and desires of his own that he had to negotiate with Rachel and his mother, then perhaps he could have been interesting, but in the end he was just the thing the women in his life were fighting over.
The side characters in this film fared better than Nick, with Awkwafina playing Rachel’s sassy black friend (the racial politics of Awkwafina’s blaccent is too big a discussion for this review!), and Gemma Chan playing Nick’s elegant cousin Astrid who has an arc with her husband that darkly mirrors Nick and Rachel’s relationship and ends with a burn so vicious that half the audience I watched this with gasped. The film is so brimming with recognizable and hilarious Asian actors that I don’t want to ruin the surprise of seeing them and going “hey that’s X actor from X movie/tv show/thing!” like I experienced. They’re all great and show off the light fun of its premise, but also the personal rot that comes with being around so much unchecked wealth and power within an insulated society. Everyone cares about everyone else’s business, but not so much the person themselves.
Singapore itself might as well be a major character in this movie because it really does feel genuinely immersive at times. We are all Rachel being taken through this beautiful world full of deeply status-obsessed people. The care and attention brought to the set designs here was incredible. The soundtrack to go with these locations was also spectacular, with great original music and Chinese covers to popular songs included in this movie. And yes, there is a makeover montage set to fun upbeat music, and yes I really enjoyed it and more movies and shows still did this unironically.
Crazy Rich Asians is a really great movie about finding pride in one’s identity, and as cliche as this sounds, it’s the one thing that no amount of money or power can get for you. It’s Rachel’s only weapon against Nick’s mother, and it’s also the only thing someone like her could have used to win against her, as being proud to be a low-born daughter of a poor Chinese immigrant and single mother was something that was truly beyond an insulated aristocrat’s comprehension. I cannot stress enough how phenomenal the final confrontation is in this film, something that absolutely should be an iconic moment in film history. The actual romantic aspects of this romantic comedy fare less well than its story about class and identity, which is a shame but definitely should not dissuade anyone from seeing this film. If there was one other flaw I can think of it’s that it would be even better as a musical (Fight me). Other than that, it’s a must see, if not for it’s cultural significance, then at least for its craft and excellence.
Quote of the Day:
“Think of all the starving children in America!”
Goh Wye Mun, Crazy Rich Asians.