Ten minutes in, I realized that I had misunderstood the title. Crazy Rich Asians does not mean ‘Asians who are both Crazy and Rich.’ It means, Asians that are Crazy Rich. Very rich, extremely rich, super rich. I like that better. It’s not trashing Asians, calling them (or at least some of them) deranged. It’s saying ‘it’s crazy how rich these people are.’
In most respects, Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com. It’s actually a fairly conventional one; built around an attractive young couple, who we root for to find Troo Luv in each other’s arms. It has many of the romantic comedy plot points. There’s the rush to the airport (implied, in this case, but still) by one member of the loving couple, to rescue the relationship in the nick of time. It has wise advice from the Gay Best Friend. Meanwhile, it bases the comedy on something other than the happy (then unhappy, but ultimately happy) couple, usually the funniest bits involving their best friends and/or eccentric family members. It’s just set in modern Asian culture, or a subset thereof. Asian culture, though one in which essentially all the characters have Western names, have studied at Cambridge or Yale, love Western pop music, and speak English, dipping only occasionally into Chinese. If you like romcoms, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t like this one.
In fact, you’ve seen it before. The main factors preventing the couple from uniting are basically class and family–class-based family expectations. Set it in modern England, and He’s from an aristocratic family, and She’s from the London East Side; same movie. Regency England: it’s Pride and Prejudice. Set it in LA, and it’s Clueless. New York? Maid in Manhattan. Make the girl a hooker, and it’s Pretty Woman. Remember Arthur? 1981, Dudley Moore, John Gielgud, Liza Minelli? This movie is basically Arthur.
But there are, of course, subtle differences between All Other Romcoms Ever and this one, just as there are always differences between various movies in any genres, and those differences make the difference, between a terrific movie and a pedestrian one, or even a super-creepy one. (While You Were Sleeping, anyone?) Crazy Rich Asians is top-of-the-line.
Here’s why. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), is an economics professor at NYU. Newly minted, we presume, because she’s young for a PhD, and certainly pre-tenure, but an academic hotshot, specializing in game theory. She’s a confident, capable, sensible and successful professional woman, with a career she loves and is good at. Her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), is good looking, charming, and in love with her. None of that changes for either of them over the course of the movie. At the beginning of the movie, they’re a happy couple in love, and at the end of the movie, they’re still a happy couple in love. Their breakup (and of course they break up, it’s a romantic comedy) does not involve either of them meeting someone else, or anything silly like that. Rachel, if she loses Nick, will go back to New York, teach again, and presumably put her life back together. She wants to marry him, and will if nothing intervenes. But something does intervene, and there’s (momentary) trouble in paradise. Which she will survive. I love that.
And trouble is inevitable, because there are things about Nick Rachel initially does not know. One is: he’s rich. Crazy rich. He’s the scion of a crazy rich Asian family living in Singapore, but with business interests everywhere. His Dad, who we never meet, is, we’re told, in Shanghai putting together a business deal. In the first scene of the movie, Nick’s just a little kid when his Mom, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is refused service in a swanky London hotel in which she has a reservation. She responds by buying the hotel. So they own a hotel. Rachel doesn’t know any of that. She has been dating Nick for a year, and knows he is, in his words “comfortable.” She doesn’t realize what that means.
Nick’s best friend Colin (Chris Pang) is getting married in Singapore, and Nick invites Rachel to join him, and meet his family. And she has an inkling what that implies, and what it might mean to their relationship, and decides to go for it. And then is taken aback when they board their commercial jet, and sit, not in economy, and not in first class, but in a private hotel-suite-like compartment with beds. Nick is, in fact, crazy rich. And this trip is going to be an adventure.
One draw for Rachel is that Singapore is where her good friend, Peik Lin (Awkwafina) lives, a long limbed, awkward, fashion-sense-deprived gamin who was easily the most charming and fun character in the film. And Peik Lin catches her up on all the Young family background.
See, Eleanor, the Mom, wants Nick to come home to Singapore, and run the family business. Dad (not present in the movie, but very much in everyone’s thoughts), has been running himself ragged, and it’s time for the next generation to begin to take up the slack. And, aside from Nick, they’re mostly not up to the task.
And then we meet them, and boy howdy. There’s the slimy Wye Mun (Ken Jeong, at his smarmiest), sex-obsessed and creepy. There’s party animal Bernard, (Jimmy Yang), who clearly must never be allowed to run anything. There’s Eddie (Ronnie Chieng) an obnoxious petty tyrant, who chews out his children because they’re only attractive enough for Chinese Vogue, not American Vogue. There’s talentless filmmaker wannabe Alistair (Eddie Hii). And more substantively, there’s the melancholy fashion icon Astrid (Gemma Chan), married to Michael (Pierre Png). She’s a model and designer, and rich on her own; Michael is a former soldier, with no money of his own, starting his own company. Astrid and Michael form an interesting contrast with Rachel and Nick, which I will discuss in a sec.
With the exception of Astrid, all these characters are comic relief. They’re in the movie to satirize a new class of Asian nouveau riche, avatars of conspicuous consumption. Rachel would have studied Veblen in grad school, and the movie invites us to see these rich idiots through Rachel’s eyes, almost anthropologically, certainly objectively, as the film’s buffoons. Look at the actors playing them–Ken Jeong, Ronnie Chieng, Jimmy Yang. American/Asian comedians, with movie careers type-cast as various Asian stereotypes. This movie’s use of them suggests that successful Asians regard them much as American producers do, as clownish. It’s a little discomfitting, but they’re all gifted comedians, and the checks all cleared–they were undoubtedly happy for the work.
A more substantive critique, though, comes from Eleanor. She opposes any marriage between Rachel and Nick, and although she’s clearly the villain of the piece, her reasoning gave me pause, because she’s not wrong, and the movie clearly thinks so too. Eleanor thinks that Asian culture (particularly Chinese culture), understands the concept of family very differently than American culture does. Americans ultimately believe in self-fulfillment, in Family as something that enables and supports children to pursue their own ideas of what will make them happy. Chinese culture, on the other hand, puts Family first, always. The wants and needs of individual family members are immaterial. What’s important are the needs of the Family. And Eleanor looks at all the cousin/relative extended family members there in Singapore, and sees ne-er-do-wells and wastrels using family money to pursue their own lives, and making a frightful mess of it. (We spend quite a bit of time at various Singapore parties, and never, not for one second, do any of them look fun). And Nick, steady, bright, responsible, thoughtful Nick is her son. He’s the one to restore the family, to save it. And while she rather likes Rachel (or at least respects her), Rachel’s an American, with a career in New York that she loves. She will not give that up for Nick, to live in Singapore and raise their children traditionally. Even if she does, she’ll resent it. So no to the marriage. Can’t happen.
She’s wrong-ish in the world of the movie. After all, we like Nick and Rachel, both individually and as a couple together, and we’re rooting for that to happen. But the movie focuses nearly-equal attention to Astrid and Michael’s marriage, which, over the course of the movie, falls apart. They couldn’t make it work, because Michael does NOT put family first. He puts his business ahead of her, and ends up having an affair. And yes, the fact that she has all the money and he has none is a factor. Which will also be the case for Nick and Rachel. He’s crazy rich, and she’s a college professor. Which is a good income, and a great life. But not one likely to make you a billionaire.
I love that about the movie. Eleanor is a wonderful character (and wonderfully played by Yeoh), precisely because she’s simultaneously terribly, hurtfully wrong, and also right. And while the movie does satirize crazy rich Asian culture, it does so lovingly. Singapore is lovely, and the food they’re constantly being served is amazing looking.
Rachel gives up Nick, turns down his marriage proposal, because she can’t bear the thought of him losing his family. She then explains why through a wonderfully unexplained game of mahjong she plays with Eleanor. (If you see the movie, it may not make much sense to you; this explainer helps.) Eleanor then responds by giving the marriage her blessing. And Nick makes it to the airport in time to propose. Like in every romcom ever. And you think to yourself, a successful family business could actually be run as effectively from New York as it could from Singapore. And a game-theory microeconomist would be handy to have around.
Anyway, it’s a wonderful movie. I strongly recommend it to anyone, whatever your ethnic background. And even if you’re an unromantic old curmudgeon like myself. Seriously, it’s terrific. It’s a crazy rich movie, emotionally, about a fascinating world subculture. I’m so glad someone was fool enough to make it. (And make tons of money off it!)